Senator George McGovern (1922-2012)
On the Relationship Between U.S. Foreign Policy and Terrorism

Arash Norouzi
The Mossadegh Project
| October 21, 2012    

Senator George McGovern Senator George McGovern, Democrat from South Dakota, author, columnist and historian, passed away today at age 90. Best known for his unsuccessful Presidential bid against Richard Nixon in 1972, McGovern became an icon of the Vietnam-era anti-war movement, a torch he carried on in his criticism of subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. President Barack Obama today hailed the distinguished American statesman and World War II veteran as “a champion for peace”.

There were nuances, however. During the hostage crisis in 1980, McGovern proposed the U.S. consider “selective American air strikes against Iranian installations” as well as “an air-tight blockade” of the country if any hostages were harmed. “I have always been a full scale hawk where legitimate American interests are threatened”, he explained.

In a July 1985 newspaper column, McGovern recommended a careful examination of American foreign policy and its causal relationship to hostile reactions from foreign lands. The warnings, directed toward the Reagan administration, and singling out CIA scheming in Nicaragua, would go unheeded. Two years later, Reagan would become embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal, which McGovern viewed as “repellent”, “unconstitutional” and “more scandalous than Watergate”.

America Held Hostage
By George McGovern

July 6, 1985

Launched on the rallying cry “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” America has always placed importance on ensuring “the blessings of liberty” for all its people. Given our enormous investment in state-of-the-art security systems, it is not surprising that Americans feel frustrated over our vulnerability to terrorism.

Former President Carter was the chief political victim of the frustration that Americans experienced during the Iranian hostage crisis. The president's challenger, Ronald Reagan, shrewdly exploited the public mood, assuring voters that a different kind of president would end terrorism.

The irony of all this is that Reagan has presided during a period when more Americans have been seized or killed by terrorists then at any previous time. During this crisis Reagan adopted the same position Carter did, speaking of his “frustration” in not being able to hit the terrorists without jeopardizing the hostages and other innocents.

Most Americans, I suspect, would have no objection to retaliation if it could be executed without risking innocent lives. But for the long term, I believe we should take two more substantive steps:

1. We need to sharpen the intelligence gathering capability of the CIA so that we have a better knowledge of the various terrorist groups and hotspots such as the Middle East. The CIA should invest less time and resources in trying to overthrow the government of Nicaragua, and more effort in getting on top of international terrorism. Poverty-stricken little Nicaragua is not much of a threat to anyone — certainly not to the power and might of the United States. But Middle East terrorism is a daily threat to Americans residing or traveling in that part of the world. The CIA should recognize this as a major challenge to their role as a gatherer of intelligence information.

2. We need a careful and critical review of American foreign-policy to determine, if possible, why our policies so deeply infuriated the groups that have decided to risk their lives in these terrorist attacks against us. Is it possible that we are pursuing policies that could be modified with no loss to our nation while reducing some of the resentment and rage that drives the terrorists against us?

For example, the Shiite Moslems were the chief victims of Israel's 1983 invasion of Lebanon. Although the Israelis finally withdrew, they have seized more than 700 Shiites who, at press time, are being held hostage in Israel. The release of these Moslem hostages was a chief objective of the group holding the original 40 American hostages.

Have our policymakers been slow in recognizing the explosive nature of the Israeli occupation and the subsequent seizure of Lebanese citizens? Have our policymakers also considered that the heavy shelling of the Druse hills by the battleship New Jersey and the Marine shelling of Shiite communities after the bomb attack on the Marine barracks enraged the Shiite people and their leaders?

Our best-informed experts on Iran tell us that the 1953 CIA-assisted coup that overthrew Iranian premier Mossadegh and put the Shah on the throne has been a major cause of Iranian hatred of America's policy. For the 25 years that followed, the Shah was seen as an American creation who systematically persecuted dissidents at home, while pursuing military and economic policies that served U.S. objectives rather than those of the people of Iran. These and other questions need to be considered by our policymakers in seeking out the root causes of acts of rage against our citizenry.

How to Avert a New "Cold War"
The Atlantic — June 1980

Excerpt from June 1980 article in The Atlantic magazine, critiquing the Carter Doctrine:

The hazard of the Carter Doctrine, as spelled out in the State of the Union address of January 23, 1980, is not in the President's pledge to protect our vital interests in the Persian Gulf, but in the assumption, without clear or convincing evidence, that our interests are now threatened by a Soviet grand strategy "to consolidate a strategic position...that poses a grave threat to the free movement of Middle East oil." Four highly plausible possibilities are thus ignored: that the Soviets may have no such grand strategy; that threats to our interests may arise from other, local sources; that detente with the Soviets and securing our interests in the Gulf can be mutually reinforcing; and that the countries of the Persian Gulf region, as well as our historic allies, must be consulted before the United States develops a doctrine or embarks on military intervention related to their interests.

The Carter Administration cannot be held primarily responsible for the explosion of anti-Americanism that accompanied the Islamic revolution in Iran. That was the result of a policy, going back to World War II, of treating Iran as an object in the geopolitics of the Middle East, without regard to its own preferences. The shah and his lieutenants played a crucial role in the high-stakes game of strategy and oil, but the Iranian people were shut out of the game. Cut loose from their traditional religious and social moorings, their expectations aroused by the sudden, glittering affluence of a privileged segment of their society, and alienated by the pretensions and oppressiveness of the imperial regime, the Iranian people became a receptive audience not only to the agitations of thousands of young people the shah had sent abroad for their education, primarily in America, but also to the smuggled-in teachings of a charismatic, exiled cleric.

Although the Carter Administration cannot be blamed for the consequences of past misjudgments, it can quite properly be asked to account for its general unprofessionalism surrounding the admission of the shah to the United States and the consequent seizure of the American hostages in Tehran. The shah was admitted to the United States despite warnings from various sources, including the American charge in Tehran, Bruce Laingen, that it would be dangerous to do so without special measures to protect the embassy or remove American personnel. No convincing case has ever been made that the shah could have been treated only in New York, or that American doctors and equipment could not have been flown to Mexico City. Professor James Still, an expert on Iran at the University of Texas, commented in November 1979, after the hostages had been seized, that although the Iranians had warned us repeatedly about the shah, "we did nothing to assuage their desperate fear of a linkage between the shah and the Administration to plot his return. They cannot forget the CIA plot that ousted Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 and returned the shah to his throne." The Administration's patience after the embassy was seized won support from the public and Congress, but there remains the question of whether the hostage crisis need have occurred.

One Bright Shining Moment:
The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern (2005)

2005 documentary on George McGovern by Steve Vittoria, narrated by Amy Goodman. Features interviews with Warren Beatty, Gary Hart, Gore Vidal, Howard Zinn, Gloria Steinem, and others.

Related links:

"Iran: How the Mess Came About" — Kermit Roosevelt's 1980 Op-Ed

What Motivated the September 11th Terrorist Attacks?

Remembering the Victims of Iran Air Flight 655

MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”

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