Deterring Democracy shows how large the gap is between the realities of today's world and the picture that is presented to the American and world public. This portrait of the US empire of the 1980s and early 90s has been largely kept hidden from public view by a compliant and complacent media. Those who have dared to expose the truth have been branded as alarmists, agitators or Communist pawns.
Nowhere have US undercover operations been more relentlessly pursued than in Central America, where US business interests have traditionally dominated national economies, with extensive investments involving use or extraction of natural resources. Chomsky reveals the full extent of these operations where, he writes, any popular effort to overthrow the "brutal tyrannies of the oligarchy and the military" is met with murderous force, supported by "the ruler of the hemisphere".
Ten years ago there were signs of hope for an end to the "dark ages of terror and misery", with the rise of citizens' groups, unions and church communities, which might have led the way to democracy and social reform.
This prospect elicited a stern response from Washington and its client states, generally supported by its European allies, with campaigns of slaughter, torture and barbarism that left societies affected by terror and panic, collective intimidation and general fear, in the words of a Salvatoran human rights organisation. Efforts by the Sandinista government in Nicaragua to direct resources to the poor impelled Washington to economic and ideological warfare and outright terror, to punish these transgressions by destroying the country's economy and social life.
Some of the worst crimes, such as brutal murders of Jesuit priests, and of nuns, did receive publicity - it could hardly have been avoided - but most of the murders went unnoticed in the mainstream media. After one reported savage outburst of terror, Secretary of State James Baker praised it at a press conference as an "absolute necessity".
Chomsky also refers to cases of direct US-backed repression, and support for fascist governments and movements in Asia, including South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Indochina and Japan; as well as in Europe, including Greece and Italy (in the post-war years), and in the Middle East. In the late 1940s in South Korea, for example, about 100,000 people were killed by security forces installed and directed by the United States before the 1950s war.
These facts are central to a realistic understanding of the contemporary world. The actual history can be discovered, as Chomsky has found, in specialised studies of what is a highly sophisticated system financed by the US taxpayer, often through official "aid" programmes. But the information is not available to the general public, who are offered a very different version of the general picture and of particular cases.
Most US external operations are covert. The overt ones such as Grenada, Panama, Vietnam and Korea were justified as "protecting democracy", through public relations campaigns to blacken nationalist leaders as evil or corrupt. Saddam Hussein, having misinterpreted diplomatic signals from Washington, was transformed from a friend of the US to an evil despot (which Chomsky agrees he undoubtedly is) in the space of two days.
Chomsky's thesis is that the prime concern of Washington's operations has been "to establish, through the reconstruction of societies, a state capitalist order under the control of traditional conservative elites, within the global framework of US power". This would guarantee the ability to exploit the various regions that were to fulfil their functions as markets and sources of raw materials. For these goals to be achieved, the system had to be stable and resistant to social change. In the wealthy industrial centres, large segments of the populations would be accommodated and led to abandon any more radical vision.
Once the institutional structure is in place, "capitalist democracy" will function only if all citizens subordinate their interests to the needs of those who control investment decisions. With popular organisations eliminated, isolated individuals are unable to participate in the political system in any meaningful way.
Washington's campaign against real civil democracy, as Chomsky points out, has been dependent on US economic and military supremacy. The demise of the former Soviet Union, removing a major restraining influence, has left the US as the supreme military power. To balance this, the US economy is weakened after 12 years of mismanagement under Reagan and Bush, and is further threatened by the strong performance of Japan and the European Economic Community. The new administration will no doubt be hesitant to abort US imperialism and face the wrath of the power elite.
Most people who have read and thought about the present world situation are aware of the enormous power exerted by the non-accountable might of the multinational companies. But not many have perceived the central role played over many decades by the US administration, and the systematic way in which successive administrations - regardless of which President happens to be in power - have shaped policy (and particularly foreign policy) to suit the interests of the group that has always dictated such policy in America, to wit the big corporations.
Chomsky's achievement is to have built up the whole picture by painstaking research over three decades; and to have shown how the mainstream media (themselves of course vast corporations) have consistently conspired - with the help of traditional academics - to mask this reality from the public.
Anyone interested in learning more about Chomsky should buy or borrow The Chomsky Reader (1987), which contains a wide range of excerpts from his writings, and also a long and fascinating interview in which he talks about his early life and cultural background.
Deterring Democracy: Noam Chompsky. Verso 1991