Since November, the United States has been consumed with the idea that Russia tried to influence the recent presidential election. How dare they? Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of democracy. Only occasionally has the press whispered hints about an awful secret: Why shouldn’t our enemies do what we have been doing for years?
Yes, America has been hip deep in the political process of other countries. We have funded and endorsed candidates, denounced political parties, and sent electoral advisors all over the globe. James Carville, the campaign manager for Bill Clinton, has worked—often on the suggestion of President Clinton—in political campaigns in England, Israel, Canada, Bolivia, Colombia, Afghanistan, Brazil, and Argentina.
There are dozens of elections all over the world that American has tried to sway, but let’s just look at two in depth.
Don’t Cry for Ballots, Argentina
During World War II, America began to see democracy as synonymous with freedom and that the Allied victory would validate the American way of life. The idea that other governments might also see the victory as validation of their way of life evidently escaped our leaders. This thinking certainly colored our relationship with Latin America.
In 1946, as Juan Peron ran for the presidency of Argentina, the American Ambassador to Argentina, Spruille Braden, became obsessed with the idea that Peron was trying to build a Fourth Reich and start a third world war. Braden, the former ambassador to Colombia and Cuba, was employed by, or was a major stockholder in, some of the more notorious international corporations doing business in Latin America. These included the Braden Copper Company, Anaconda Copper, United Fruit Company, and Standard Oil. Not for nothing was the very first act of President Somoza his conferring of Nicaragua’s highest decoration on the ultra-conservative diplomat.
Leaving Argentina to become the new Assistant Secretary of State, Braden stepped up his activities against Juan Peron. Just days before the election, the United States released the 130-page “Blue Book” about Peron’s alleged ties to Nazis and his plans for a fascist South America. Ambassadors from all over Latin America were given special copies of the book bound with blue covers, and the entire book was published in the pages of a Buenos Aires newspaper.
Undeterred, Peron published his own 130-page book, the “Blue and White Book”. The name not only mocks the American “Blue Book”, but references the colors of the Argentine flag. From its very first paragraph, Peron's book attacks the United States as having “intervened in our domestic policy”. Argentine citizens were outraged by the American attempt to influence their election.
Peron, who ran on a slogan of “Braden or Peron”, won the election by 350,000 votes. Several Argentine historians have suggested that Peron would have lost the election without Braden.
After the election, Braden soon left the State Department. Working for United Fruit, he was the point man for the CIA overthrow of the Arbenz government in Guatemala and eventually went on to be one of the founders of the John Birch Society.
Free Elections, Vietnamese Style
In the early 1950s, as the French began advancing in an alternate direction—one that would take them out of Southeast Asia—America began slowly taking their place there. At the 1954 Geneva conference, it was agreed to divide Vietnam in half at the 17th parallel. The communists would go north while the French and their allies would go south until free elections could be held in two years.
Now the US had no intention of allowing those free elections to take place for the simple reason that the side we supported—and this meant anybody but the Communists—would have lost. In the meantime, we proposed that the South be ruled by the hereditary leader—Emperor Bao Dai—with Ngo Dinh Diem, as his Prime Minister.
For America, Diem may well have been the worst possible choice to lead South Vietnam. A Roman Catholic and a former minister in the French Colonial Government, he was hated by the Vietnamese people, who saw him as corrupt and ruthless. Though the French warned the Eisenhower government that the man could not be trusted, we decided to back Diem. (To be fair, Eisenhower, with his extensive European experience, can be forgiven for rejecting any French advice not involving cheese or wine.)
Since America knew that the scheduled 1956 election would almost certainly result in a victory for the Communists in the North, we held an early election in 1955, in which only those in South Vietnam were allowed to choose between Bao Dai and Diem. The CIA’s Colonel Edward Lansdale helped organize the election. Since a lot of the voters were illiterate, colored ballots were used. Red ballots were for Diem and green ballots were for Bao Dai.
The fact that the superstitious Vietnamese believed that red signified good luck while green forecast bad luck was not a coincidence. The red ballots showed a smiling Diem in modern dress standing with young people while the green ballots showed a confused Bao Dai wearing old style robes.
The CIA really didn’t need to bother, since Diem controlled the ballot counting. Despite warnings from Washington, Diem reported that he received 98.2% of the total vote, with an astounding 133% of the votes from Saigon. Lansdale, who had cautioned Diem to pick a plausible number somewhere between 60—70%, left Vietnam in disgust. (He promptly became involved in the ridiculous Operation Mongoose—the absurd attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro with exploding cigars.)
Within days of the election—on November 1, 1955—the United States established MAAG (the Military Assistance Advisory Group) to train the South Vietnamese Army and that date is now recognized as the beginning of the Vietnam War.
The choice of Diem quickly proved to be a mistake. At times the staunch Roman Catholic seemed to be more at war with his country’s Buddhists than with the Vietminh. Despite the US's giving Diem $200 million a year, Diem could not seem to bring reforms to South Vietnam. (This was probably because he spent his time putting over 100,000 of his own people in prison camps, some of whom were children convicted for the horrendous crime of writing anti-Diem graffiti.)
Eventually, President Kennedy commissioned a study on how to handle the Diem problem. The report, called for the introduction of large scale military intervention, more money, and “advisers” to help stabilize the Diem government. Unfortunately, it was probably too late.
On June 11, 1963, Thich Quang Duc, a sixty-six year old Buddhist monk, sat down in the middle of a busy Saigon road. He was then surrounded by a group of Buddhist monks and nuns who poured gasoline over his head and then set fire to him. One eyewitness later commented: "As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him." While Thich Quang Duc was burning to death, the monks and nuns gave out leaflets calling for Diem's government to show "charity and compassion " to all religions.
The government's response to this suicide was to arrest thousands of Buddhist monks. Many of those jailed were never seen again. By August another five monks had committed suicide by setting fire to themselves. One member of the South Vietnamese government responded to these self-immolations by telling a newspaper reporter: "Let them burn and we shall clap our hands." Another offered to supply Buddhists who wanted to commit suicide with the necessary gasoline.
In 1963, Diem was assassinated (with the approval of the CIA). This probably would have caused a lot of Americans to wonder just what the hell was going on in Vietnam, if President Kennedy had not been assassinated just three weeks later.
There are more examples of US "participation" in foreign elections, but you get the idea. If the United States really wants to stop foreign intervention in elections, perhaps we should lead by example.