William Blum is an American author, critic of American foreign policy and retired employee of the US State Department. He is the author of numerous books and articles discussing uncoverings of the Central Intelligence Agency and writes about our involvement in worldwide terror operations, often in the name of democracy. Blum is the author of the famous book Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions since World War II (Common Courage Press). The book enjoyed remarkable success, becoming required reading for students and professions in numerous fields. Professor Noam Chomsky said of the book, “It is far and away the best book on the topic.” The book is astounding, as Blum breaks down the post-war CIA in more than 50 fascinating chapters. Actions everywhere from Albania to Zaire are discussed in the book. I met with William Blum in early December in Washington, DC.
Daniel Falcone: Could you tell me something about your educational background and your schooling and how that formulated your conceptions of foreign policy?
William Blum: My interest in and my knowledge of US foreign policy are entirely self-taught. It doesn’t come from school. In college, I majored in accounting, of all things, and I worked as an accountant for years. And then I worked as a computer programmer and systems analyst, including at the State Department, where I wanted to become a foreign-service officer. I was working there with computers only to get my foot in the door. But then this was in the mid-’60s, and a thing called Vietnam came along and changed my entire thinking and my life. And I abandoned my aspiration of becoming a foreign-service officer, and I became a leading anti-war activist in DC in ’65 and ’66 and ’67. The security department at State was not unaware of what of what I was doing, and then they called me in eventually and told me I would be happier working in the private sector. And I couldn’t argue with that. So I left, and I began writing. I was one of the founders of the Washington Free Press, the first underground newspaper in DC.
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What do you think the people need to know who are interested in military history or the history of the Vietnam War or how American foreign policy is essentially made in the United States?
The most important lesson one can acquire about US foreign policy is the understanding that our leaders do not mean well. They do not have any noble goals of democracy and freedom and all that jazz. They aim to dominate the world by any means necessary. And as long as an American believes that the intentions are noble and honorable, it’s very difficult to penetrate that wall. That wall surrounds the thinking and blocks any attempt to make them realize the harm being done by US foreign policy. That’s what’s in my writing and in my speaking. My main aim is usually to penetrate that wall of belief that we mean well.
How do you think people that are a part of the electorate today and participants in the two major parties differentiate President Bush from President Obama, and what are the differences between the two in approach of the office in terms of diplomacy, meaning in terms of diplomacy or foreign affairs?
Well, in foreign policy there’s no difference. I cannot name any significant difference in foreign policy between Bush and Obama. Obama is, perhaps, worse. He’s invaded six nations already. I cannot think of any way to point out that Obama is less of an imperialist than Bush. The Obama supporters would love to think he’s better and they would argue even – and they do argue that it’s the Republicans who forced him to do what he did. It’s like – it’s on par with the dog ate my homework. I get this again and again. If Obama was free to do what he wants, he would be an angel or at least much better than he is now. I don’t buy that. He’s the most powerful person in the world, and he’s just lacking courage – he’s lacking belief, too. That’s even more important. I’ve written this several times about Obama. There’s nothing really important to that man except being president of the United States. That he likes. He likes what goes with that. But there’s no issue that he would not compromise on. He’s willing to take any side of any issue in order to get elected. So he’s no better than Bush. Bush at least believes what he says, I think. Obama doesn’t even do that.
Going back to what you were saying about education earlier, do you think that it’s possible to get an understanding of how the world is organized without being self-taught? Or is this something that is a skill that you must acquire on your own?
One doesn’t have to be self-taught. One can learn in all kinds of ways. One can have a teacher that inspires them. If I had had a teacher like that, I might not have had to become self-taught. But I didn’t.
Were there any authors that you read that inspired you or were you driven through direct experiences and what you saw and observed?
Well, the first book I read which began to change some thinking was The Origin of a Cold War by D.F. Fleming. It’s two volumes. That had an influence on me. Many years later, when I looked over it again, I was not as impressed as I was when I first read it. But when I first read it, it was an eye-opener in various ways, and that’s one book. I think mainly, though, more than books, there was the publications of the ’60s. The newspapers put out by various groups on the left opened up my eyes, including my own newspaper.
Can talk about interventions and plots and specific portions of your famous book on the CIA that were the most astounding to you? Or is it just the general day-to-day activities of the CIA that you want people to focus on? Was there any event that stood out that told you, I have to write about this?
With every chapter in my first book, which eventually became Killing Hope, every chapter was chosen because I found it as something I thought the average American would find contradicting of what he or she had been taught and believed. So that was the criteria I used and so – and it applied to me, as well. These were things which surprised me to discover, one after another. Now, when I began that book, I knew about the seven or eight most famous interventions – Guatemala and Iran and a few others. I had no idea there was so much wrong. But the more I did research, (it began actually as a magazine article) the sooner I realized this is a book – this is not a magazine article. There were so many things I came across. And even that book now – even though it has 55 chapters, I can add a lot more to it. My next book, Rogue State, lists about 20 major interventions which are not even in Killing Hope. Not in the same rich detail you have in Killing Hope, but it’s a shorter concise version of each of these in Rogue State. I have about 20 more cases that were not in Killing Hope. The first version of Killing Hope was published in London by Zed Books. I was living in London when I wrote the book. That’s why it was published there. Now both Killing and Rogue are Common Courage Press of Maine.
Professor Noam Chomsky at MIT calls the book the best book on the subject that’s ever been written. Are you aware of this endorsement as well as several other noteworthy authors?
Yeah, that was very kind of him. At the time of writing this, of course, I had no idea how it would be received. The closer I got to finishing it, the more enthused I was. I had no expectations that it would be received as well as it has been. It’s been in print now for 27 years in one version or another under one name or another. It’s basically the book I finished in 1986, so it’s been quite a surprise to me. And it continues to sell, and it’s in print in several languages.
You said recently in an interview regarding your last book how maybe our goals as Americans are to take a look at our empire and slowing it down. If we can’t stop it, perhaps we can slow it down. So what did you mean by that?
Well, because I’m always asked by people what can I do about this? After they hear me talk or write about this long list of terrible things done by the government, I suggest what you said, a slowing down. It’s too difficult to stop obviously. You cannot wave a magic wand.
Is this something that you find in American audiences? Do all people overseas ask similar questions? Because the American society is a pretty free society; it has educational opportunities. Usually the answer is just doing what you do. You write. You’re an activist. You’re engaged in speaking activities. You organize. And that’s really the only way to really do this, to slow it down, is it not? I mean, like you said, there’s no way to wave a magic wand?
Well, unless you want to take up arms, which I don’t recommend. I think we’d be outmanned and outgunned. Yeah, unless you want to look for a violent revolution, it’s all you can do is educate yourself and as many other people as you can. That’s my main advice and my writing is actually aimed at giving the means and the methods to educate other people. I want people – my readers – to learn what to say and what not to say if they’re trying to influence other people about US foreign policy. I have that in mind all the time when I write. How will this help my readers to be activists, activists in changing other people’s minds?
What do you think the public is missing out on in terms of our interactions with Iran and how the media is filtering that story? And what do we need to know about that story?
It’s hard to give an overall general statement about what the average American thinks about the Iran question. I’m sure they have all kinds of misconceptions, and I’m sure that the average American thinks Iran is evil and they mean evil and they have done evil. And many of them believe, well, we shouldn’t be making any kind of deals with such people. They don’t realize how the US has overthrown the Iranian government and instituted a dictatorship which lasted 26 years and how we have done many more bad things to Iran than Iran has done to us. So if they want to approach this question from any kind of moral point of view, they’re on the wrong side. We have done much worse to them than they to us. And we’ve heard so much about their former president, Ahmadinejad, how what a terrible person he was and that’s so full of lies. It’s been ascribed to him that he called for wiping Israel off the map. That’s not true, which implies a violent attack on Israel; that’s a total lie. I’ve written about this many times, and they’ve said that he has denied the Holocaust. Again, a total lie. He has never done that. I have all this written about in my monthly Anti-Empire Report.
That is to fuel anti-Iranian sentiment?
Well, the people who believe these things get these ideas from the media, and the media get it from the government. And our government is in the business of making Iran look as bad as possible. It’s no surprise to see this all the time. The media is un-independent. They are the mouthpiece of the government. They would be shocked to hear you say that. CNN thinks it’s really independent. And Fox News and CBS: They all think they’re not in a police state, but this is a police state in many important ways. And what the media picks up from the government is what the government wants the American people to believe. Propaganda is almost too nice a word to call it, but that’s what the average American believes. So that’s my self-appointed task, to counter all this propaganda.
You’ve written about democracy and the meaning of democracy and I guess that democracy is code for something else. Well, most people around the world, when they compare maybe their region of the world to westernized democracy, they think of freedom, opportunity, a chance to engage in some sort of entrepreneurial spirit, whether it’s England or the US, especially the United States. When our presidents invoke the words democratic freedom in their speeches, what do they really mean?
Well, that’s automatic. They’re trying to sell their current intervention to the American people and to the world – and to the American media. And they know what to say and what not to say. And what they know to say is democracy and freedom and overthrowing a dictatorship and so on. They know how to ignore all the history, including fairly recent history, which contradicts what they’re saying. They simply know what not to say and what to say. And it’s very predictable, and one has to know the facts to see through what they’re saying and what they’re not saying. It’s not hard for me to say how the average American who’s new to all of this can easily be fooled. Easily. And so that’s my self-appointed task to counteract all of this, which is not easy. I’m dealing with a people who have had a lifetime of indoctrination beginning in kindergarten and with their comic books and radio and TV and so on – and how can I undo all that education in a few pages. It’s not easy.
When the Bush administration was manufacturing war and the necessities to go to war, it had neo-conservatives in the fold, a group of people organized around a philosophy of foreign policy that was generally centered on spreading empire. And the thinking was when you do this, you secure your own nation state and you acquire, I assume, resources and leverage in the world. I guess it’s a part of what’s called the Bush doctrine. Obama has a doctrine. Who’s formulating his policies, or helping to?
Brzezinski played a major role in the US intervention in Afghanistan, which has had a horrible consequence. So he’s hardly someone to present as any kind of counterpoint to the neoconservatives. He’s proud of what he did. I wonder – well in any case, he, for example, still takes pride in what he did in Afghanistan.
How would Mitt Romney’s foreign policy look compared to Obama’s? Would it be worse? Or the same? Or better? Or we can’t know?
I think it would be very similar. They would still be completely pro-Israel and completely against any kind of leftist or socialist government or movement. They would still attack al-Qaeda types but make use of them where they can. Like what Obama does. You know that the US government has – well, right now in Syria, as in Libya, we have fought on the same side as the terrorists. In fact, we have fought on the same side as terrorists on five separate occasions in the past 30 years or so. Well, it began with Afghanistan. It went Afghanistan and then Bosnia and Kosovo and then Libya and Syria. That is five countries that we have fought on the same side as the terrorists; and it’s finally hitting home. Maybe a bit of the reason that the US government and France and the UK have cut back so much on aiding the rebels in Syria in the past few months is maybe they finally have had these terrorists up to their eyes and that’s enough. It’s gotten to them finally. And they’re having a very hard time defending their policies because of that. So it seems that they’re finally seeing how absurd their policy was.
You were discussing before about how Osama bin Laden’s statement about the introduction of your book was something that he thought Americans should read because it essentially was asking Americans to look within to how their government was constructing foreign policy, maybe unbeknown to them. That picked up sales for your books maybe for a couple days. But then after a while universities didn’t want to be associated with you speaking on campus?
I estimated at the time that it was about 20,000 sales I wouldn’t have had otherwise. It sounds very nice, but I think I’ve lost more money as a result of that in lost campus speaking engagements over the years. It’s been almost eight years now, and I’ve had in those eight years as many speaking engagements as I used to have in one year. So I think I’ve lost money in the end, although that’s beside the point. I mean I’m glad it happened anyhow, because I reached many people.
Other than the standard conspiracy theorist who wants to bring up things that you have left out that maybe it’s not even within your realm to be interested in discussing, what are some of the counterpoints or some of the arguments you get? You are a radical. What do people need to know about the difference between a radical and a liberal, because people don’t understand that maybe? They think there is the left and the right in the United States.
You know, that’s fairly unsophisticated thinking on their part, and it used to be even worse. I think more people today understand that Obama is not Chomsky. You know? It’s pretty obvious. I get letters indicating that they still don’t make a distinction between a liberal and a radical as they should, and I have to point that out to them. That’s part of the continuous educational process I go through with my readers. This is an ongoing daily thing. I have 9,000 people on my mailing list, plus many thousands more from the internet magazine sites. So I get lots of email. As we’re talking, I have more than 4,000 emails to answer. And that’s one of the points that needs to be mentioned, what I have pointed out, that a liberal is not a radical. And I have to point that out, and Obama is not the man they think he is, that he doesn’t really believe in anything. I’ve written this first – back in ’08, when Obama was running as a candidate in the Democratic primaries, I’d never heard of him before. I just saw his name in the headlines and I knew that he was a US senator and that he was black; that’s about all I knew. And one time I was in my kitchen washing the dishes for a long time and on the radio it was announced that he was going to give a speech. I decided I would listen to see what this guy’s all about. And I listened for about 20 minutes, and it hit me right in the head: This man is not saying anything. One sentence after another is just a platitude or a cliché; it’s avoiding taking a stand, and he’s not saying anything. I knew then who he was and who he wasn’t. And it’s been confirmed again and again. Most people who think like him are sort of proud of what they think, and that’s their ideology. And they make it plain. This is what they believe and what you should believe. But he doesn’t have any ideology that he’s really proud of or that he pushes to any great extent. That was surprising that he doesn’t believe in anything.
So what can we call him? A centrist? A liberal Republican? What?
In Europe, he would be center-right. Here, we say he’s a centrist. But even that – being a centrist is also an ideology. People who are centrists have certain beliefs; they’re not empty-headed. So I don’t even know whether to call him that, because he doesn’t have any strong beliefs.
The conservative wing of the Republican Party, Tea Party, which might make up, I don’t know, 20 percent or 30 percent of the country – does that have any effect on moving the country more to the right and therefore moving whoever’s president to the center-right? Or is this something he would do independently regardless of the Tea Party? What are the consequences of having an interest group like the Tea Party in the country? What does that mean for the United States in terms of our discourse, in terms of our day-to-day political life?
Obama would conduct himself the same way, Tea Party or not. I think they may have peaked from what I read. They’re best days are gone, I think. That’s good. The statements are so stupid. I mean even if you expect conservatives to be stupid, they still stood out. Like when they marched around saying to the government hands off our Social Security, they didn’t even realize that the Social Security is in the government. So that is what has caused their short life.
Is there racism toward this president?
Oh, yeah. That’s a major reason why he’s opposed. I mean if he was white doing the same things, he would have much less opposition. But that’s no reason for any progressive to support the man, because other people are racist. That doesn’t give me any reason to support him. I mean other people are stupid and racist, that doesn’t mean I have to support the object of their hatred. I mean I could just – I could attack the people who are the racists, which I do.