Monday, July 21, 2014

Mend Thine Every Flaw

Naturalization Ceremony at Monticello
Photo by Waldo Jaquith
from Wikimedia Commons

The naturalization ceremony at Monticello each 4th of July, where people who have come to the U.S. from all over the world stand and take the oath of citizenship, is a stirring event.  Bob thought it would be a feel-good story for these troubled times, and sent me to do a feature this year.  “Be sure and get some interviews,” he reminded me as I was heading out the door.  “First-hand accounts are what make history come alive.”

“Sure thing, Chief,” I told him.  “Patriotic music, a celebration of democracy in action, and heartwarming stories.  I could write this in my sleep.”

“Ah, so that’s why your stories usually sound the way they do,” he said.

“Glad you like them,” I said.  “I’ll try to meet my usual standard.”  He said something in reply, but it was muffled by the loud slam of the door behind me.  It must have been caught by the wind. 

The mood at Monticello was festive and the ceremony moving.  After the speakers, the administration of the oath, and the rest of the formal agenda, the band began playing, kids were rolling hoops and running around happily, and I had a couple of ice cream cones to tide me over until lunch.  Then I walked around looking for newly-minted citizens to talk with, humming along as the band gave a nice rendition of “America the Beautiful.”
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law! 

The first new citizen I approached turned out to be from Chile.  “Congratulations!” I told her, shaking her hand.  “How long have you lived in this country?”

“I came with my mother in the late 1970s when I was just a young girl,” she said. “It took me a long while, but I finally decided to become a citizen here.”  

“Just you and your mother?” I said. “What about the rest of your family.”

She looked a bit awkward.  “Maybe you remember the years of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile?”

“Not really,” I said.

“Well,” she explained, “when the CIA engineered a military coup to overthrow the democratically elected government of President Allende, General Pinochet’s men herded my father and twelve-year-old brother into the national stadium, along with hundreds of others, where they were both tortured and killed.”  She began to tear up at the memory.

What can you say after something like that?  “Oh, I’m sorry,” I said, stunned.  “Uh, well, congratulations again on your naturalization.  Best of luck to you.”  And I quickly went looking for someone else to interview.

The next new citizen I approached told me he was from Guatemala, and was working as an orderly in a local hospital.  “Actually, I was a doctor specializing in rural medicine back home,” he said, “but after death squads murdered four of my colleagues at night in front of their families, I fled for my life.”

“It’s a shame your country has such a history of unrest, dictatorships, and violence,” I said.  “It must be a relief to become part of a country like ours with its long tradition of democracy and freedom.”

He nodded.  “It’s bittersweet,” he said.  “It was the stability in this country that finally led me to apply for citizenship.  But at the same time, enjoying that safety here is painful because it was the United States that  organized the overthrow of our peaceful, democratically-elected government and replaced it with dictators who carried out decades of genocide.”  He paused, his eyes down, and then looked up at me.  “The U.S. trained the death squads and early on gave them a list of names of doctors, journalists, teachers, community activists, labor organizers, and student leaders to ‘neutralize’,” he said quietly.

“Oh.  I didn’t realize.  I ... uh .... ”

“I understand,” he said, his voice a little hoarse.  “Most people here seem completely unaware of these things.”

“Right,” I said, anxious to get out of this situation.  “Listen, it’s been great talking with you.  Good luck.”

The band was now playing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” and the words of the song ran through my mind as I hurriedly walked away.

Our father's God, to Thee,
Author of liberty,
To Thee we sing.
Long may our land be bright
With freedom's holy light;
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God, our King!

Maybe Latin America was the problem, I reflected.  Then I noticed what appeared to be a Middle Eastern woman standing alone.  I introduced myself, and asked where she was from originally.

“Iran,” she said, and nothing more.  She seemed wary, so I tried to put her at ease.  “I’m a newspaper reporter doing a human interest story on new citizens naturalized today,” I said.  “Would you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

“I suppose it’s okay.”

“Great.  Can you tell me how does it feel to become a citizen in a free and democratic country like ours?”

“Freedom and democracy are wonderful things,” she said.  

After a pause she added, “My grandmother would tell me, when she was alive, about how proud Iranians were when we elected Mohammed Mossadegh Prime Minister in a free, fair, and open vote.  But when Mossadegh decided to cancel the British monopoly control of Iranian oil and nationalize the oil company, Britain and the U.S. decided he had to go.  The CIA was used to overthrow him.   It took two years.  They bribed newspaper editors, created a fake communist party, organized and financed opposition, and then orchestrated a coup that put the Shah in power.   Years of dictatorship followed, with unspeakable horrors.  Over 3,000 people were killed by the Shah’s regime.  My grandfather’s brother was tortured and killed by the Shah’s secret police.”

“You know,” I said, shaking my head, “you may find this hard to believe, but three people now, from three different countries, have just told me basically the same story.”  

She gave me a hard stare.  “I don’t find it hard to believe at all,” she said.  “Don’t you know your own history?  We in Iran were the original success story for the CIA’s overthrow of governments the U.S. wanted to replace.  The coup in Iran in 1953, and the dictatorship that was installed in its place, became the prototype for U.S. foreign interventions all around the globe.    There have been at least eighty coups organized against foreign governments by the U.S. since then.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” I said.  

“Would anyone joke about such a thing?” she said.  “And it’s certainly not a joke to all the people who have suffered the consequences--who have seen their own freedoms and dreams destroyed.”

“What countries are you talking about?” I asked.

“There have been so many I don’t know if I can remember them all,” she said.  “After Iran, there was the overthrow of President Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954.  The U.S. called that coup ‘Operation PRSUCCESS.‘  About 200,000 people--mostly peasants--were killed by the U.S.-backed security forces over the years.  Then came the coup in Thailand in 1957, and the one in Laos between 1958 and 1960.  Of course there was the coup in the Congo in 1960, after the Belgian Congo finally gained its independence.  Remember Patrice Lumumba, the Prime Minister who was imprisoned and executed?”

“Never heard of him,” I said.  “These things all took place before I was even born.”

“So you’re only aware of history that occurred during your lifetime?” she asked somewhat sharply.

“Of course not,” I said, a bit ruffled.  “I’ve heard of the American Revolution and the Civil War and the First World War and the Korean War ....  wait, I’ve forgotten some.  The War of 1812, the Spanish-American War....”

“That’s what history is for you?” she asked, eyebrows raised.  “A series of wars the U.S. has fought?”

Time to switch the subject.  “No, no,” I said.  “What I meant was that those coups you mentioned were a part of the past.  We’ve moved on from there.”

“Don’t kid yourself,” she said--a phrase which sounded odd when spoken with her accent.  “The pattern of coups organized by the U.S. has continued through your own lifetime and right up to the present day.”

“I don’t mean to be rude,” I said, “but that’s ridiculous.  I’m a newspaper reporter.  If the United States was routinely undermining democratic governments and replacing them with dictatorships, don’t you think I’d be aware of it?”

She stared at me for a moment, then said, “Well, are you?”  She waited, but I didn’t answer.  

“Not all of these countries were democracies, but all of them were the victims of U.S.-backed coups,” she said, and began to recite:  “Turkey in 1960, 1971, and 1980; Ecuador in 1961 and 1963; South Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, and Argentina, all in 1963; Honduras, also 1963 and then again in 2009; Iraq in 1963 and 2003; the overthrow of President Goulart in Brazil in 1964; Bolivia three times, including 1964, 1971 and 1980.  In 1965, the U.S. gave the Indonesian army the names of 5,000 Communists, who were hunted down and killed as part of the quarter of a million Indonesians slaughtered by the military.  The U.S. orchestrated the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana in 1966; a coup in Greece in 1967; the overthrow of President Arias in Panama in 1968 after he demanded the return of the Canal Zone to Panamanian jurisdiction, and then again in 1989 with the replacement of Manuel Noriega; the removal of Prince Sihanouk in Cambodia in 1970; the overthrow of President Allende of Chile in 1973; Bangladesh in 1975; ‘Operation Fair Play,’ the military coup that removed Prime Minister Bhutto of Pakistan in 1977; the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983; Mauritania and Guinea in 1984;  Burkina Faso in 1987; Paraguay in 1989; Haiti in 1991 and again in 2004; Russia in 1993; Uganda in 1996; and Libya in 2011.”

“Huh,” I thought to myself.  “Looks as if it’s not just Latin America.  She’s talking about countries in North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the Middle East, even Europe.”  

But what I said was, “Wow, it’s amazing you can rattle off a list that long, with all those names and dates.” 

“Victims tend to have longer memories than aggressors,” she answered.  “And it helps that I’m a historian.”

“Well, thanks for your time,” I said, waving goodbye.  None of what I had so far was usable; I needed to find some folks with more upbeat stories before everybody headed home.  I had a little time yet, I thought, because I could hear the strains of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” wafting across the mountaintop:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, 
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me: 
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free, 
While God is marching on.

One thing all those songs agreed on, I noticed: God seemed to be with our country on its mission.  Or were we with Him?  Regardless, I was eager to gather a few of the right kind of interviews before I headed home and wrote my story while I was taking a nap.

© Tony Russell, 2014

Note:  The list of coups rattled off by the woman from Iran in the column is a much-modified version of a list contained in an AlterNet article by Nicolas J.S. Davies, which itself draws on William Blum's book Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II.

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