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In 1954 the CIA published a top-secret classified document titled “A Study of Assassination.” The document confirms that within seven years of the CIA’s founding in 1947, the agency was specializing in the art of assassination.
There are various fascinating aspects of the study. One is that the CIA was exploring different methods by which to kill people. The other is that the CIA was figuring out ways to keep people from discovering that it was involved in the assassination.
If we jump ahead ten years or so, we find that the art of assassination was being taught to Latin American military personnel at the School of the Americas. It was the U.S. military’s primary training school for Latin American military officials and, in fact, was often referred to by Latin Americans as the “School of Assassins.” The art of torture was also being taught at the school, with actual torture manuals being used as part of the torture course.
While we still don’t know whether the CIA’s “Study of Assassination” evolved into a full-fledged assassination manual, similar to the Pentagon’s torture manuals, there is no doubt that its study of assassination continued to evolve and develop. Among the most fascinating strategical aspects of assassination that U.S. officials were teaching Latin American officials in the 1960s and 1970s was how to avoid detection in state-sponsored political assassinations. To discourage people from accusing the government of having assassinated a person, Latin American officials were counseled to blame the assassination on a communist.
Why a communist? Why not a capitalist? Or a businessman? Or a doctor?
To understand the cunning of the CIAs “blame it on a communist” strategy, we have to go back to 1945 and the aftermath of World War II.
After Germany’s Nazi regime had been defeated, U.S. officials told the American people that unfortunately, they could not rest. The reason, they said, was that the United States now faced an enemy that was arguably a much greater threat to the survival of the United States than Nazi Germany. This new enemy, they said, was America’s World War II partner and ally the Soviet Union, which had been controlled by a communist regime since World War I.
U.S. officials maintained that there was a worldwide communist conspiracy, one that was based in Moscow, Russia, to take over the world, including the United States. If the U.S. government did not wage what became known as a “Cold War” against the Soviet Union and other communist regimes and possibly hot wars against communists and communist regimes, the United States, like the rest of the world, would inevitably fall to the communists.
To combat this new enemy, U.S. officials said, it would be necessary to do a major restructuring of the federal government, which would involve converting the federal government from a limited-government republic, which the Constitution had called into existence, to what was called a national-security state, a type of governmental system characterized by a massive and permanent military establishment, a secretive intelligence agency with omnipotent powers to undertake covert actions to protect national security, and secretive surveillance systems to monitor people’s activities as part of the process of keeping the citizenry safe. Charged with the critically important task of protecting national security, which would become the two most important words in the American political lexicon, the national-security state began wielding omnipotent, totalitarian-like powers, including the power to harass, abuse, smear, ruin, spy on, and even assassinate people who were deemed to be threats to national security, including communists and communist sympathizers.
Communists and the Soviet Union, however, were not the only threats that Americans were facing in the postwar environment, according to U.S. officials. There was also the threat involving the philosophy of communism or socialism, a philosophy which, generally speaking, entails having government watch over and take care of the citizenry with such things as guaranteed employment, retirement pensions, health care, minimum-wage laws, economic regulations, and education, as compared to a system in which people take care of themselves through economic enterprise, self-reliance, voluntary cooperation, and private charity.
As economic philosophies, communism and socialism (which were, for all practical purposes, interchangeable terms) lead to a nation’s impoverishment and even destruction. The danger of communism and socialism, as U.S. officials viewed the situation, was that they were like a narcotic. Once people got a taste of them, they would become hooked and want more. As the Sirens’ song of socialism caused people to demand more government services, the government would gradually move toward a full-fledged socialist economic system, which in turn would result in the destruction of the country.
The national-security establishment’s concern over the possibility that socialism and communism would spread to the United States wasn’t without foundation. For example, in the 1930s Franklin Roosevelt had nationalized the gold-coin holdings of the American people, an action that was no different in principle from the nationalizations of private property that were taking place in communist countries. Moreover, with its enactment of Social Security, an idea that had originated among German socialists, the Roosevelt administration had ushered in the modern welfare state, which was a variation of the socialist model.
Waging the Cold War domestically entailed a fierce anti-communist crusade against anyone suspected of having or having had communist or socialist leanings or connections to communists or communist organizations.
During the Cold War, the FBI, a federal police force founded in 1908, became a part of the national-security establishment, sending its agents across the land to look for communists and suspected communists. Among the most prominent victims of its anti-communist crusade was Martin Luther King, who the national-security establishment was convinced was a communist, which is why the FBI tried to blackmail him into committing suicide. In fact, the national-security establishment was convinced that the entire civil rights movement was a communist front.
It was an extremely frightening time for people who had believed in communism or socialism, had been members of the Communist Party, or who had been somehow connected to some socialist or communist organization. People were smeared and careers were damaged or destroyed. Even the careers of successful people such as Dalton Trumbo and the Hollywood Ten were severely damaged for having had connections to communists or communism. Who can forget that infamous inquisitorial question asked by the House Un-American Activities Committee (an Orwellian name if there ever was one) to people it subpoenaed to appear before it: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”
In their quest to cleanse the United States of communists and communism, the FBI and the CIA infiltrated their agents into suspect organizations or acquired paid informants within them, with the intent of monitoring them, disrupting them, and even ruining them. Examples included the U.S. Communist Party, which openly promoted communism and socialism, and the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, which promoted the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba. Although such organizations were legal under America’s political system, the FBI and the CIA, operating under such top-secret and illegal programs as COINTELPRO and Operation Chaos, did everything they could to surveil, infiltrate, disrupt, and even destroy such organization as well as their members.
Since there is a fine line between leftist or progressive ideas and socialist and communist ideas, left-leaning organizations were oftentimes put under surveillance by the FBI and the CIA. One example was an organization in Washington, D.C., named the Institute for Policy Studies. It was a leftist think tank that employed a man named Orlando Letelier, a communist-socialist who had served in the presidential administration of Salvador Allende in Chile and who was assassinated in Washington in 1976 as part of the Chilean national-security state’s Cold War against communists and communism.
As part of their anti-communist crusade, U.S. national-security state officials were looking for communists everywhere, even inside the military and inside the State Department. Critics of the crusade mockingly asserted that the FBI was looking under people’s beds for communists. But the anti-communist crusade wasn’t funny, at least not to the many people whose lives were destroyed, who were harassed, or whose friends or family members were smeared, economically ruined, executed, or assassinated by the national-security establishment, whose powers were expanding to meet what was perceived to be an ever-growing threat.
Throughout the Cold War, many people were so scared of communism that they failed to ask important questions regarding the principles of a free society, such as: In a genuinely free society, do people have the right to believe in, promote, and advocate a philosophy that is destructive to freedom and economic well-being, such as communism or socialism? Do communists and socialists have a right to participate in the political process, including being elected or appointed to high office? Should government be engaged in covert and illegal activities, such as COINTELPRO and Operation Chaos, that are intended to monitor, disrupt, or destroy organizations and people promoting communism and socialism?
The U.S. national-security establishment said no, at least not in certain instances. Since communism and socialism were deemed to be destructive to the nation, communists and socialists were deemed to be threats to national security. That’s why they were monitored, spied on, harassed, smeared, and even killed. Freedom, it was believed, did not entail the right to engage in activity that destroyed freedom, such as advocating socialism or communism.
Thus, the CIA’s ingenious assassination strategy of blaming a covert state-sponsored assassination on a communist was based on the notion that it would discourage people from pointing an accusatory finger at the intelligence establishment that had carried out the assassination. If a person accused the state or publicly questioned the official version of the assassination, he could be labeled a communist or a communist sympathizer and, therefore, he would risk his life’s being wrecked by the insinuation. The “blame a communist” strategy would be especially effective in silencing people on the Left, given that they would be most susceptible to being labeled “pinkos,” “fifth columnists,” communists, or communist sympathizers.
The CIA’s top-secret 1954 assassination manual was not written in a vacuum. It came about as part of a CIA regime-change operation, the second in the agency’s history. The first one had occurred in Iran the previous year — 1953, when the CIA engineered a coup that ousted from power Prime Minister Mohamad Mossadegh, who had been elected by the Iranian parliament and appointed by the shah. They then supported the brutal and oppressive tyranny of the shah of Iran.
In 1950, the Guatemalan people democratically elected a self-avowed socialist-communist named Jacobo Arbenz to be their president. Like other socialists, Arbenz believed in using government to take resources from the rich and redistribute them to the poor. He also had no reservations about letting other socialists and communist work in the Guatemalan government.
The richest company in Guatemala was the giant U.S. corporation United Fruit, which owned 550,000 acres of land in Guatemala. Under an “agrarian-reform law” enacted at Arbenz’s behest, the Arbenz regime confiscated some of United Fruit’s lands and gave them to the peasants.
Naturally, the land seizures did not sit well with United Fruit, which had powerful and influential friends in the CIA, Congress, and other parts of the federal government.
Alarm bells began going off in Washington over the fact that a communist regime was situated only 2,000 miles away from the United States, but it was when Arbenz reached out to the Soviet Union in a spirit of peace and friendship that his fate was sealed. U.S. officials deemed him to be a grave threat to national security and targeted him for a regime-change operation. Moreover, as part of its coup planning, the CIA prepared a secret list of Guatemalan officials to be assassinated.
Yet there is something important to note about Guatemala under Arbenz: it never attacked the United States or even threatened to do so.
Needless to say, there was nary a concern that the U.S. Constitution, which expressly enumerates the powers of U.S. officials, does not delegate any power of assassination to U.S. officials and, in fact, through the Bill of Rights expressly prohibits federal officials from depriving people of life without due process of law. Given that the federal government had been converted to a national-security state, U.S. officials were deemed to have automatically acquired whatever powers they needed to protect national security, including the power to monitor, spy on, harass, abuse, smear, ruin, and even assassinate people who were deemed to be threats to national security.
Arbenz, however, was lucky. Almost certainly on the kill list, he was able to escape the country before he could be assassinated. U.S. officials replaced him with a brutal, unelected military general named Carlos Castillo Armas, who was pro-U.S. and vehemently anti-communist. Taking a page from the U.S. national-security state’s anti-communist crusade, Castillo Armas, according to Wikipedia, “cracked down heavily on unions and peasant organizations, arresting and killing thousands. The popular “agriculture reforms” of Arbenz was largely rolled back. He created a National Committee of Defense against Communism, which investigated more than 70,000 people and created a list of suspected communists that included 10 percent of the population.”
In 1957, after getting into a dispute with the Mafia over gambling operations in Guatemala, Castillo Armas was assassinated. The assassination was said to have been committed by a palace guard who was shot dead while supposedly fleeing from the scene. An official inquiry into the assassination concluded that the assassin was a communist.
This article was originally published in the August 2017 edition of Future of Freedom.