Noam Chomsky’s fierce critique of United States policy in Central America,

In 1985, as Central America was being torn apart by increased militarisation and civil wars rife with US-armed death squads, Noam Chomsky published Turning the Tide, which offered a searing indictment of US policies towards the region. The book showcased Chomsky’s ability to pull together a variety of sources to present ‘a world that is much uglier’ than ‘the one presented to us by a remarkably effective ideological system’ – indeed, one that is ‘often horrifying’.

In the second chapter Chomsky recalls the ‘Four Freedoms’ pronounced by Franklin D. Roosevelt in January 1941, but adds a fifth: ‘the freedom to rob and to exploit’. This is the ‘most important’ Freedom and ‘the one that really counts’. ‘A careful look at history and the internal record of planning’, he contends, ‘reveals a guiding geopolitical conception: reservation of the Fifth Freedom, by whatever means are feasible’, and for Chomsky ‘Much of what US governments do in the world can readily be understood in terms of this principle’. With this in mind he explores the exercising of this ‘Freedom’ by the United States, with particular focus on ‘the gruesome record of Reaganite state terrorism in Central America’, as he describes in the preface  accompanying a new edition of the book published this year.

Indeed, such is the record in what Chomsky describes as ‘one of the world’s most awful horror chambers’, that even for those familiar with the style and content of his work, the text makes for deeply unsettling reading. The book includes countless accounts and testimonies of barbarity including torture and massacre, mass rapes, mutilation and dismemberment – to name but some methods employed by US-trained terrorists. In fact, possibly more shocking is not the nature of the violence, but that with every subsequent account – and there are many – they increase in brutality, and never fail to shock and appal.

Chomsky considers possible answers to the question of what lay behind this violence, framing his enquiry around a 1948 document by George Kennan, head of the State Department policy planning staff, which advised ‘ceas[ing] to talk about vague and … unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratisation’. Multiple studies Chomsky reviews show an overwhelming proportion of US aid going to the most repressive regimes and he argues that the primary concern of US policy is to develop desirable conditions for investment. ‘[I]n the Third World’, he writes, an ‘improvement in the investment climate is regularly achieved by destruction of popular organisations, torture of labor and peasant organizers, killing of priests engaged in social reforms, and general mass murder and repression’. It is such aims which lead the CIA to recruit former-Nazis in subversive and repressive activities, as detailed in the book.

Turning the Tide was published three years before Chomsky and Edward Herman’s influential critique of the mainstream media, Manufacturing Consent. Here, he foreshadows that work by similarly excoriating the press, accusing it of ‘a sordid display of moral cowardice’ with regards to reports on Guatemala. As he is known to do, Chomsky compares the media treatment of terror in ‘client’ (El Salvador, Guatemala) and ‘enemy’ (Nicaragua) states, concluding that ‘With a docile intelligentsia and well-behaved ideological institutions Western Agitprop can achieve quite notable results.’ In the preface to the new edition Chomsky adds to this, noting that ‘What is needed is a new concept, unterror, modelled on Orwell’s unpeople’, carried out by clients and allies and thus ‘excluded from the canon’ and ‘unworthy of mention or memory’. The value of Chomsky’s work lies not simply in providing accounts of the terrible fate of ‘unpeople’ around the world, but that he offers a scrupulous and scathing analysis of the policies and the rationale for their execution.

In Turning the Tide, Chomsky not only provides a damning and bloody account of US imperialism in Central America, but places that account within a historical context which proves that ‘unterror’ is characteristic of US policies. This he demonstrates with passion and clarity, making Turning the Tide an unpleasant though indispensable read.

Turning the Tide: U.S. Intervention in Central America and the Struggle for Peace

Noam Chomsky (South End Press, 1985)

Turning the Tide has been republished by Pluto Press as part of their Chomsky Perspective series

This article was originally published in Alborada magazine issue two (Winter 2015)