This past weekend, I saw Pawn Sacrifice, the new movie about Bobby Fischer, the world-renowned American chess player who defeated Russian Boris Spassky to become the first American ever to win the world championship in chess. It was an interesting and entertaining account of Fischer’s life up until the time he won the championship in 1972 in Reykjavik, Iceland. I’ll leave reviews of the movie to the pros, but I’ll recommend one entitled “Bobby Fischer Won the War” in Iceland Review Online, which details personal recollections by a chess player named Benedikt Johannesson, who was actually at that famous match in Iceland and who even met Fischer.
As a libertarian, I was particularly interested in how the movie would depict the U.S. government’s indictment of Fischer for violating U.S. sanctions on Yugoslavia by participating in another chess match with Spassky in 1992. Thus, I was disappointed that the movie ended with the 1972 match. At the end, there were notes posted on screen detailing subsequent events in Fischer’s life, including the sanctions controversy and his death in 2008 at the age of 64.
Before getting to the sanctions event, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the Cold War aspects of Fischer’s life because they provide added confirmation of what I have long been maintaining: that the Cold War was nothing more than an exercise in inanity and an excuse for grafting a national-security apparatus, a type of political structure that is inherent to totalitarian regimes, onto America’s original limited-government structure that the Constitution brought into existence.
Throughout his life, Fischer suffered from severe mental problems, especially paranoia. He was convinced that the Russians were trying to poison him and were bugging his hotel rooms. According to an article entitled “A Psychological Profile of Bobby Fischer” by Joseph G. Ponterotto, Fischer had a dentist remove all his fillings out of fear that they had radio transmission devices planted in them.
But as the old saying goes, paranoid people are sometimes followed. The fact is that the Soviet Union, as a totalitarian regime, did spy on people and did follow people. In fact, as any good America anti-communist conservative will tell you, such agencies as the Soviet KGB and the East German Stasi were notorious for their secret surveillance schemes, their secret files on people, and their destruction of anyone who was suspecting of being anti-communist.
What drove the Soviets to engage in massive secret surveillance? Well, actually a bit of paranoia. They were convinced that anti-communists and Western spies were going to succeed in overthrowing the Soviet communist regime.
But guess who else was a bit paranoid. Yep, the U.S. national-security state branch of the federal government, the branch that had been grafted onto the federal governmental structure at the end of World War II to wage the Cold War against America’s World War II partner and ally (and Nazi Germany’s WWII enemy), the Soviet Union.
As it turned out, it wasn’t just the Soviet Union that was spying on its own citizens, secretly monitoring their activities, and keeping secret files on them. The U.S. national security state was doing the same thing the Soviets and East Germans were doing.
This phenomenon is documented at the beginning of Pawn Sacrifice, when federal agents are shown to be spying on Fischer’s mother and monitoring her activities. Their reason? They were convinced that his mother, Regina Fischer, who had immigrated from Russia, might be a communist agent of the Soviet Union.
Don’t forget, after all, that this was the 1950s, during the height of the Cold War, when the anti-communist crusade was being waged by U.S. officials. “The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!” Everyone was exhorted to look for communists under their beds. Government agents were doing everything they could to destroy the U.S. Communist Party and the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Secret files on Americans maintained by the FBI. Sen. Joseph McCarthy was looking for commies in the U.S. Army, the U.S. State Department, and Hollywood.
And of course, Fischer’s mother wasn’t the only one being spied on by U.S. officials. There were countless more. Among them was Ernest Hemingway.
Why were U.S. officials doing all that? For the same reason that the Soviets were doing it — because U.S. officials were concerned that American communists would succeed in violently overthrowing the entire U.S. government and taking over the IRS, the Interstate Highway System, Social Security, and all the other parts of the U.S. government.
Of course, U.S. officials tried to distinguish America’s mass surveillance system from that of their Soviet counterparts by saying that their mass surveillance scheme was a pro-freedom surveillance scheme while the Soviet one was a pro-communist surveillance scheme. But doesn’t that only go to show what an inanity the Cold War was and how the U.S. national-security establishment warped and distorted America’s principles, values, and right-thinking? Imagine: Adopting a Soviet-type system of secret surveillance, based on a severe case of fear of communism paranoia, and saying it’s pro-freedom.
In 1992, Fischer and Spassky agreed to a rematch, this time in Yugoslavia. Why there? Because they offered a $5 million purse, without around $3.5 million to the winner and $1.5 to the loser.
There was one big problem, however. President George H.W. Bush had issued an executive order imposing sanctions on Yugoslavia. That meant that it was now illegal for Americans to engage in commercial transactions in Yugoslavia.
What is an executive order? It’s a decree or edict issued by a nation’s ruler that effectively becomes law. Ironically, like secret surveillance schemes, executive decrees and edicts are inherent to totalitarian regimes, which never bother with congresses or legislatures. Under the brutal U.S.-supported dictatorship of Chile’s military strongman Augusto Pinochet, for example, executive orders were called “decree-laws.” That’s because the dictator’s decree immediately became law.
That’s the way it was with Bush’s decree-law. No, he didn’t go to Congress to seek a duly enacted law imposing sanctions on Yugoslavia. Like Pinochet and, for that matter, leaders of communist countries, he just issued a decree. He cited the United Nations, which had its own sanctions system on Yugoslavia, as his justification.
U.S. officials then sent a letter to Fischer advising him that if he played his chess match in Yugoslavia, they would have him indicted, which meant a possible 10-year jail sentence. Imagine: 10 years in a federal penitentiary for playing chess, in supposed violation of Bush’s decree law.
To Fischer’s everlasting credit and to the U.S. government’s ever-lasting rage, Fischer responded to the letter by spitting on it. He proceeded to play the match, defeated Spassky again, and walked away with the winner’s prize.
But he could never return home again because the U.S. government secured a one-count federal criminal indictment against him for violating Bush’s decree-law.
In 2004, Fischer was detained at Narita International Airport in Japan at the urging of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The reason? The U.S. government had, unbeknownst to Fischer, cancelled his passport, the same thing they did to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, thereby trapping Fischer in Japan as effectively as they trapped Snowden in Russia.
Don’t forget: Fischer was still a citizen of the United States, a nation that has long prided itself on the notion of fundamental, God-given rights, including freedom of travel. So much for that notion, given the ability of the U.S. government to cancel government-issued passports.
Fortunately, Iceland, where Fischer and Spassky had played their original world-championship match, and where Fischer was revered, agreed to give Fischer Icelandic citizenship. To Japan’s everlasting credit, Japanese officials refused to accede to U.S. demands to deliver Fischer into the clutches of U.S. officials, who undoubtedly would have sought the maximum 10-year jail sentence for this chess player, and instead sent him to Iceland, where he spent the rest of his life.
Another person deserves everlasting credit for his role in the sanctions affair, and that is Boris Spassky, the Russian chessmaster who Fischer had defeated. When Fischer was in Japanese custody awaiting his fate, Spassky, who by this time had become a French citizen, wrote a letter to President Bush stating in part:
I would not like to defend or justify Bobby Fischer. He is what he is. I am asking only for one thing. For mercy, charity. If for some reason it is impossible, I would like to ask you the following: Please correct the mistake of President Francois Mitterand in 1992. Bobby and myself committed the same crime. Put sanctions against me also. Arrest me. And put me in the same cell with Bobby Fischer. And give us a chess set.