Morality Plays


In mid-June, commentators were complaining that President Trump was making friends of our enemies, and enemies of our friends. In actuality, North Korea is being positioned as a non-enemy rather than a friend—and this could change overnight.

How easily one can slip into the habit of describing other countries as “friends” or “enemies.” Political leaders and commentators consider Israel a friend, and the UK, and the other three English-speaking countries that are part of the supra-national intelligence organization known as the Five Eyes or FVEY. However, while countries may be allies, I think only human individuals can truly be friends.

According to George Washington’s Farewell Address, our country should seek "Honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none." We seem not to be following that advice, and haven’t for a long time.

It is an especially strange idea that an entire country can be our “enemy” even when our countries are not at war. For 65 years, through three or four generations, our leaders treated North Korea and Iran as U.S. enemies.  Yet can 25 million or 80 million people—most of them civilians, one-fifth to one quarter of them under age 15—all be our enemies? I expect the people of these countries seldom think about us, their attention directed to the joys and challenges of their daily lives, unless our actions impinge on their ability to earn a living, or even worse, threaten war. And the same with us, we rarely think about them except when one of our “enemies” figures in the news.

Meanwhile, the remaining 180 or so countries are extras, chorus, and spectators of the main events, those dangerous melodramas of brinksmanship and war.

Why are certain countries our enemies? The ancient Roman historian Tacitus said “It is human nature to hate those whom you have injured.” Although most Americans have forgotten about it, there was a time when the United States grievously injured both Iran and North Korea.

Last year about this time the CIA finally released the details of the 1953 Iranian coup, and the agency's central role in overthrowing Iran's democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, replacing him with a monarch friendly to the West (Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi). The CIA had long denied their involvement in this coup.

It was about oil, of course. For decades, a British oil company had controlled Iran’s oil revenues. Although an American oil company in Saudi Arabia finally agreed to share the wealth with the local government, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company refused to follow their lead. PM Mossadegh then nationalized Iran’s oil industry.

British leaders were furious. Since the U.S. and UK are “friends” that goes for their oil industries too. British and U.S. intelligence conspired to overthrow Mossadegh. As a condition of U.S. help, the British company was forced to end its monopoly and allow in American and other western petroleum companies.

After the coup began on August 19, 1953, massive protests broke out, and some 300 people died in firefights in Teheran. Mossadegh, the most democratically-inclined leader that Iran has ever had, appeared on television weeping. (I saw this footage.) He spent the rest of his life under house arrest, while some of his supporters were executed.

Iran then suffered 25 long years of political repression under the Shah and his dreaded secret police, SAVAK, which the CIA and the MOSSAD helped to set up. SAVAK specialized in tortures which I won’t describe here—I don’t even like to read or think about them. In 1978-1979, Iranians overthrew the Shah and with him a monarchy that had lasted for 2,500 years. In the revolutionary chaos, a radical Islamist cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, came out as top leader The Shah fled to the United States ostensibly for cancer treatment.

The coup and SAVAK have gone down the memory hole in this country. What Americans do remember is that in 1979, after the revolution, a group of Iranian students took 66 hostages from the American embassy in Teheran, and kept most of them for 444 days. The students wanted the United States to extradite the Shah, so they could put him on trial and execute him.

This hostage crisis grabbed the headlines for over a year, and probably cost U.S. President Jimmy Carter a second term. From then on, Iran was our “enemy.” The Reagan and first Bush administrations sent weapons and high tech to help Iraq in its war with Iran. Not that Iraq was ever our “friend." American geostrategy was simply to keep any one country from dominating the oil-rich region.

The situation with North Korea is quite different, since that country does not have vital resources to fight about. Korea was simply a pawn in the Cold War. The United States fought there from 1950 to 1953.  The head of the U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force General Curtis LeMay, said later that U.S. bombs “killed off 20 percent of the population” and that the Air Force “targeted everything that moved in North Korea.”

Wasn't killing so many civilians a war crime? The Geneva Conventions aren’t explicit about aerial bombardments, and anyway, who had the authority to accuse the powerful United States of war crimes? We “remember the Alamo” but don’t remember that our military killed a fifth of a peasant nation with little defense against bombing. To put this in perspective, if the USA lost one fifth of our population, that would be about 65 million people—the combined populations of Texas, Florida, and Illinois.

I am not excusing any past or present leaders of either Iran or North Korea for their actions, especially not for the brutal repression of their own people. I simply suggest that we look at the historical context to explain why some nations might suspect U.S. motives, or might desire powerful weapons to defend themselves from us.

And let’s stop talking about “friends” and “enemies” when we’re really talking about geostrategy and economic power.


Air Force General Curtis Le May, FVEY, Geostrategy, Mohammad Mossadegh, SAVAK