Journalist Bill Blum spent a career exposing the nuts and bolts of US imperialism

Mainstream media consistently and repeatedly fail to connect the dots between trade, corporate investment, military interventions, and domestic economic instability.  As a result, violence around the world, economic precariousness at home appear without cause and treated – whether at home or abroad -- as discrete events to be handled by charity or a policeman’s baton, but never as a matter of justice.  And because outbreaks of violence are treated as random events, the US war machine proceeds with little domestic challenge.  As a result, the State Department can claim to act on behalf of human rights and concern for others, while pursuing a set of actions that directly and intentionally harm those on whose behalf we allegedly act.  The late radical journalist Bill Blum, with the wit and directness that characterized his writing challenged that whole way of thinking.  For those unfamiliar with his work, the following three quotes give a glimpse of the essence of his research and journalism aimed at exposing US imperialism in all its manifold manifestations:

“No matter how paranoid or conspiracy-minded you are, what the government is actually doing is always worse than you imagine.”

“Consciously or unconsciously, [the American people] have certain basic beliefs about the United States and its foreign policy … The most basic of these basic beliefs, I think, is a deeply-held conviction that no matter what the US does abroad, no matter what horror may result, the government of the United States means well.”

“To the American power elite one of the longest lasting and most essential foreign policy goals has been preventing the rise of any society that might serve as a good example of an alternative to the capitalist model. This was the essence of the Cold War. Cuba and Chile were two examples of several such societies in the socialist camp which the United States did its best to crush.”

On March 17 a memorial for Bill – who died this past December at age 85 – was held at the Washington Ethical Society bringing together people who were influenced or touched by his work through the years.  Sponsored by Covert Action (and hosted by its editors Chris Agee and Louis Wolf) as well as family members, friends and comrades, the memorial not only celebrated the life of meaning and purpose Blum lived, it also served as an affirmation of the continual need to challenge the lies and distortions that clothe the United States’ war machine.

Blum, raised in an Orthodox Jewish home in New York, grew up as a convinced anti-Communist and Eisenhower Republican.  After a brief period at IBM, he went to work at the State Department because, as a foreign service officer, he hoped to promote the “American Way of Life,” to the rest of the world.  The reality of the Vietnam War disillusioned him about the underlying nature of US foreign policy and he resigned in 1967.  Instead, he became a journalist, helping found the Washington Free Press, DC’s first “alternative” paper.  His work took him to Chile where he covered Salvador Allende’s attempt to chart a peaceful, democratic path to socialism and the tragic end of that experiment in a bloody, CIA-backed military coup.

He then traveled to London where, in 1975, he worked with ex-CIA officer Phillip Agee to establish the magazine Covert Action as a vehicle to expose the US foreign policy establishment’s continual interference in the internal affairs of other countries in order to protect US business, commercial and military interests.  This became Bill’s life work as can be read in his books: Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II (1995/2004), West-Bloc Dissident: A Cold War Memoir (2002), Freeing the World to Death: Essays on the American Empire (2004), Rogue State: A Guide to the World Only Superpower (2005), America’s Deadliest Export: Democracy (2013) and, and in later years up to the time of his death, the on-line bulletin Anti-Empire Report.  What he uncovered was not only the ideology that rationalized US foreign policy as somehow being beneficent in intent even if marred by an occasional “mistake” but the reality that rationalization glossed over.  This perspective, which challenges the presumption of American “goodness” so assiduously promoted by most politicians and the press, was summarized in one of his last public lectures.  At the 2018 Left Forum in New York, Blum outlines the truths behind the fictions of US foreign policy:

“This basic belief in America’s good intentions is often linked to “American exceptionalism”. Let’s look at just how exceptional America has been.
Since the end of World War 2, the United States has: attempted to overthrow more than 50 foreign governments, most of which were democratically-elected; dropped bombs on the people of more than 30 countries;
attempted to assassinate more than 50 foreign leaders; attempted to suppress a populist or nationalist movement in 20 countries;
grossly interfered in democratic elections in at least 30 countries;
led the world in torture; not only the torture performed directly by Americans upon foreigners, but providing torture equipment, torture manuals, lists of people to be tortured, and in-person guidance by American teachers, especially in Latin America.

This is indeed exceptional. No other country in all of history comes anywhere close to such a record. But it certainly makes it very difficult to believe that America means well.”

Those claims were backed up by solid research using the method brought to a fine art by I.F. Stone (who admired Blum’s work): looking for what is “hidden” in public documents.  This is critical because through such research the context and wider picture of the causes and consequences of our actions can be found.  For it is rare that arguments justifying bombings, sanctions, or the like are based on outright lies; rather it is through lies of omissions that the public is so often misled about the purpose, nature or even existence of all those interventions, assassinations and brutalities.  It was an impressive body of work that has been praised by Noam Chomsky, Seymour Hersh, Oliver Stone – and Osama Bin Laden.  Bin Laden’s comment that Blum’s book Rogue State provides the answer to the question as to why there is so much hatred of the US abroad quickly led to a huge increase in sales of the book— and quickly led to the loss of stipends from university talks sponsored by student groups, which had been a staple of Bill’s income.  Blum never had a university position, working as a freelance writer for more than 40 years after leaving the State Department – a difficult career, but one that gave him the independence to write as he saw fit.

Behind all this lies a commitment based on basic values of decency.  Bill’s son, Alex Blum, in a moving tribute noted that his father liked the simple pleasures of life: a good haircut, a hot pastrami sandwich, Nathan’s hot dogs (served at the reception after the talks – he may have rejected the religion in which he was raised, but Bill stayed true to Brooklyn’s Jewish food culture).  And, Alex added, therein lay his values, for he believed we ought to live in a world in which everyone is able to enjoy those simple pleasures of life.  The morality contained in that belief was expressed by the music at the Memorial – activist and singer Luci Murphy and homeless advocate Eric Sheptock performed the gospel song “May the Work I’ve Done Speak for Me,” and the labor/civil rights anthem “We Shall Not Be Moved,” a video recording was shown of the duo Magpie performing Phil Ochs’ touching “When I’m Gone.”  And Bill’s wife, Adelheid, also in a video sent from Germany, sang Woody Guthrie’s “A Hobo’s Lullaby,” explaining that it was a song they often sang together as a family on long car trips.  In every instance the music expressed what was being celebrated: “A Life Well-Fought.”

The words spoken and sung through the evening were all rooted in a sense of hope that drives activism and commitment to others.  And that too touches on Blum’s work.  Clearly, many of our actions abroad have been motivated by demands of corporate power be it United Fruit or Exxon or Anaconda Copper.  And just as clearly, it has been motivated by power politics and the quest to assert dominion over others – the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the wars against Korea and Vietnam, can be understood in no other way.  But inextricably bound to these stands the aim of hope denied.  A denial, that is, of an alternative to capitalism, an alternative of a world of inequality, injustice, war and poverty which are presumed to be as much in the nature of things as illness or mortality.  Thus the most dangerous threat – be it posed by Italian Communists and other anti-fascists in 1946, by Guatemalan and Iranian reformers in the 1950’s, by Lumumba in the Congo in the 1960s, or by Chilean Popular Unity in the 1970’s -- is the threat of an example which could lead to questioning injustice everywhere, including here at home.  To quote from his aptly titled Killing Hope, Blum put the matter thusly:

“… every socialist experiment in the twentieth century – without exception – has been crushed, overthrown or invaded or corrupted, perverted, subverted or destabilized, or otherwise had life made impossible for it, by the United States.  Not one socialist government or movement – from the Russian Revolution to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, from Communist China to the FMLN in Salvador – not one was permitted to rise or fall on its own merits; not one was left secure enough to drop its guard against the all-powerful enemy abroad and freely and fully relax control at home.  It’s as if the Wright Brothers first experiments with flying machines all failed because the automobile interests sabotaged each test flight.  And then the good and god fearing folk of the world looked upon this, took notice of the consequences, nodded their heads wisely and intoned solemnly: Man shall never fly.”

And this brings us back to connections unseen.  March was women’s history month, a time to celebrate the strength and accomplishments of women – a needed celebration as too often young girls and grown women at any age are likely to face obstacles and limitations deeper and greater than men.  Yet celebrations that act as if US society is a leader in such progress, a model for others to follow and emulate, is a distortion of the truth, a distortion that serves as a roadblock for further progress.  That distortion is particularly glaring when we look beyond our country’s border, for while US aggression has often been clothed in the language of women’s rights, the reality of US policy has served to weaken those rights.

Perhaps the names of two women whose lives were prematurely cut short in the month of March can illustrate the point: Rachel Corrie (1979 – 2003), killed by a bulldozer while engaged in a non-violent protest of Israeli destruction of Palestinian homes, and Berta Cáceres (1971 – 2016) a Honduran indigenous environmental and social justice activist assassinated with impunity in a country where such killings have become commonplace.  Behind Cáceres death was the hand of a Honduran government in power only because of a US-backed coup against a democratically elected government.  A government deemed dangerous, because it formed part of Latin America’s “pink tide” and sought to use public resources for public benefit rather than private profit.  And behind Corrie’s death lies US support of Israeli militarism and expansionism in violation of international law and human rights, violations committed with impunity because committed by a government acting to maintain the status quo of corporate domination of the region and its resources.  Although Blum did not write about International Women’s Day, he did write about Corrie, Cáceres and other known and nameless women, whose lives were cut short because US imperial power will brook no opposition to our global dominance.

The relevance of those connections was demonstrated during the congressional hearing in which Rep. Ilhan Omar questioned Elliott Abrams – well-respected by mainstream Democrats, Republicans and the press -- over his role in overseeing murder and rape in El Salvador during the 1980s.  The people in El Salvador were made to pay a price in those deaths and deaths of so many others that Abrams and those like him justify in the name of a “democracy,” in which social justice is absent.  That is clearly the type of democracy that US power is today attempting to impose on Venezuela, the type imposed on Honduras.  US policy in Omar’s native Somalia similarly contributed to the endemic violence – violence that particularly harms women -- that forced her family to emigrate when she was young.  Somalis – as is the case with many in Omar’s Minneapolis district -- who face exploitation by an employer such as Amazon, while also subject to harassment because of their religion, culture, appearance.  This system of violence she is objecting to is connected to US support of Israel’s dispossession of Palestinians and support of Saudi Arabia’s war against Yemen.  Connections like those are ignored by those who attack Omar, and connections like those were the ones Blum insistently and consistently exposed.   It is the reason his books should still be read and the reason his work will be missed.

         In Memoriam: Bill Blum presente!

For more information about Bill Blum and about the memorial check the link below in Covert Action which continues to publish and expose:

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