For whatever reason, that incident by the El Camino struck me as many others had not, and it summoned to my mind a simple question: How had it come to this? How, in the name of fighting communism—or at least what some claimed was communism—had the American government come to tacitly sanction death squads, to support governments that would so brazenly murder its own people as to toss their bodies out on sidewalks in broad daylight?
I wouldn't say this question came to me as some kind of revelation. Instead, it was merely the culmination of a long personal journey, one that encompassed my own childhood experiences joined to all I knew about recent American history, about Vietnam and Chile and Guatemala. But something did change in me after El Salvador. From then on, the very phrase "anti-communist" took on a squalid quality when I considered the crimes done in its name, and I tended to consider those who gave themselves that label with much the same derision that I held for other lunatic fringes, the anti-fluoride or flat-earth crowds. This was a comfortable place to be in the mid-1980s, what with the Reagan administration cozying up to most any despot who called himself anti-communist, and I had a lot of company in my disgust.
Yet, even then, I was conscious of an essential contradiction in this outlook, something that didn't fit. Because when you really thought about it, most any right-thinking person should be anti-communist. Quite aside from its utopian pretensions in theory, what communism had displayed time and again in practice was a system tailor-made for the most cunning or vicious or depraved to prosper. Amid the blood-drenched history of the twentieth century, just two communist leaders—Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong—had, through a combination of purges and criminally incompetent economic experiments, killed off an estimated sixty million of their own countrymen. If you added in the lesser lights of the communist world, its Pol Pots and Kim Il-sungs and Haile Mengistus, one could easily add another ten or fifteen million to the body count. Given this gruesome track record, shouldn't any right-thinking person be anti-communist in the same way that they should be anti-Nazi or anti-child molester or anti-polio?
But if anti-communism itself was not the issue, just when did its image become so sullied? While impossible to isolate to any singular event, I believe the answer to that question can be found in a fairly clearly delineated and brief stretch of American history, specifically that twelve-year span from 1944 to 1956 that comprised the first years of the Cold War.
The transformation that occurred in those twelve years of the American Century, both within the United States and in its standing in the world, is nothing short of staggering. In 1944, the United States was seen as a beacon of hope and a source of deliverance throughout the developing world, the emergent superpower that, in the postwar era envisioned by Franklin D. Roosevelt, would nurture democracy across the globe and dismantle the obsolete and despised rule of the European colonial powers. It was to be the end of the age of empire and, if Roosevelt's vision was achieved, possibly the end of war itself, with countries in the future Settling their differences around the conference table of a powerful and transnational forum, the United Nations.
Just twelve years later, though, the United Nations was already beginning its long slow slide into irrelevance, and rather than dismantling the European colonial empires, in many places the United States was paying for their maintenance. Instead of fostering the spread of democracy, the United States was overthrowing democratic governments—in Iran, in Guatemala—that it deemed communist-tilting or otherwise unreliable. Even to opt for nonalignment between the competing superpowers was no guarantee of escaping American Cold War wrath in the form of economic embargoes or destabilization efforts; in the increasingly black-and-white view of the anti-communist crusaders in Washington, those who did not stand fully with the United States stood against it.
And at the end of this time span: humiliation. After years of trying to spur an anti-communist uprising somewhere in Eastern Europe, American Cold Warriors were finally handed one in Hungary in October 1956, only to have all their talk of "rollback" and liberation be exposed as meaningless rhetoric; the image of Soviet tanks rolling through the streets of Budapest to crush the revolution produced great bouts of hand-wringing in Washington, but nothing more. Ironically, at that very same moment, another anti-communist revolt, this one virtually unknown to the outside world, was taking place on the opposite side of the earth. Just as in Hungary, though, American strategists would decide there was nothing they could do to support the regional uprising against communist rule in the Southeast Asian nation of Vietnam. Finally in all this, in those same few fateful days of late October and early November 1956, Cold War myopia may have caused American leaders to miss a golden opportunity to start bringing that greater conflict to an end. Instead, the Cold War would drag on for another thirty-five years, avoiding the nuclear conflagration that so many feared, but sowing any number of lesser sorrows along the way: El Salvador, Angola, Cambodia and of course, Vietnam.