Alec Baldwin: Americans have been lied to

Edward Snowden saw things he thought we, as Americans, should know. He valued the truth and thought you could handle it, says Alec Baldwin.

Obviously, we’ve been here before. The United States has been here before. The friction between democracy (or democracy as we like to think of it) and capitalism has often created agonising tensions and dramatic upheavals for America. Those spasms left us at least as demoralised as many Americans feel in the wake of the Edward Snowden-NSA revelations. The reality that the government is spying on Americans on a wholesale level, seemingly indiscriminately, doesn’t really come as a surprise to many, given the assumed imperatives of the post- 9/11 security state. People seem more stricken by the fact that Barack Obama, who once vowed to close Guantanamo, has adopted CIA-NSA policies regarding domestic spying, as well as by government attempts to silence, even hunt down, the press.

Americans, in terms of their enthusiasm for defending their beloved democratic principles in the face of an ever more muscular assault on those principles by the state in the name of national security, are exhausted. If you are a “boomer”, like me, and have lived through the past five decades with any degree of political efficacy, you can draw a line from JFK’s assassination to the subsequent escalation of the Vietnam war, on to 1968 with the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Chicago Democratic Convention and Nixon’s resurrection; from there, to Kent State, the Pentagon Papers, Nixon’s re-election, Watergate, Nixon’s resignation, Ford’s pardon, Carter’s one term and out, the curious Iran hostage situation, Reagan (who brings back a degree of the charm and affability that died in Dallas), Iran Contra, Oliver North, Bush the First (as in first CIA director to become president), Iraq the First, Clinton kills welfare, Gingrich shuts down the Congress, Clinton’s impeachment, the 2000 election, Bush v Gore, Bush the Second, 9/11, Iraq the Second, “Mission Accomplished”, the Swift Boaters, Afghanistan, Gitmo, Assange, Manning, Snowden.

I have left out a good deal. There is, of course, a lot that’s positive running through the American narrative during this time, but I think more bad than good. You look at all of this laid end to end and you’d think the US might have had a nervous breakdown. I believe it actually did.

Americans are pretty basic. Generally speaking, they are a “suit up and show up” type of crowd. In spite of images of rampant obesity running throughout the country, gun laws that border on madness and our debt ceiling made of Swiss cheese, more Americans wake up every day to participate in an experience defined by work, sacrifice and moderate self-denial. They are workaholics who exercise, eat fairly well, drink in moderation and refrain from drugs and extramarital affairs while, perhaps, fantasising about either or both. They are devoted to family, friends, churches and social organisations. They are generous with their money as well as time. When disaster strikes, America is a good place to be.

But one thing that Americans fail at, miserably, is taking their government to task when that government has lied to them, defrauded them, covered up its crimes and otherwise blocked them from knowing essential truths. In political terms, Americans have a strong devotion to afflicting the afflicted and comforting the comfortable. They have a hard time contemplating any meaningful overhaul of the rules of their political system, preferring to say “Please, sir, may I have another” in the face of abuses of power. Americans, despite all of their claims to an “exceptionalism” among the nations of the world, have been lied to for so long about so many relevant topics, they have lost sight of what the truth is.

It seems more difficult, at least to me, to effectively assess historical events that came before my lifetime with the same perspective as those I lived through. Pearl Harbor, Nazi appeasement, Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the Pumpkin Papers feel slightly more remote, more like history, than what’s happened since 1958, the year that I was born. And two great and urgent factors that emerged during my lifetime, I believe, have kept us in a type of karmic stall and prevented the US from growing into what it might have been. One is the Vietnam war and the other is the assassination of President Kennedy.

Kennedy died 50 years ago. Since then, Americans have honoured his legacy, or their somewhat beatified version of it, in every conceivable way. Countless schools, highways, bridges and even airports have been renamed in his honour. Kennedy is not on Mount Rushmore, but in the hearts and minds of many of my generation he exists on his own equally exalted plateau. Yet while a mere photo of Kennedy can still overwhelm one with a sense of loss, while innumerable books have been written and countless words have flowed that till the soil of who Kennedy was, what he stood for and what might have been if he had lived, Americans have not done the one thing you would expect such deep affection for a fallen hero would demand: we still don’t know who killed him.

How much has been written on this subject? Too much, perhaps. To wander into the rabbit hole of JFK assassination theory, one must prepare for a Lewis Carroll-esque tumble through a record, half a century in the making, that is among the greatest lies any society has ever been asked to swallow in the name of moving forward in order to heal itself.

No sane person believes Kennedy was killed by one bitter ex-marine. To be an American today is to accept this awful truth and to live your life with unresolved doubts about your country as a result. Those who promote the Oswald theory do so knowing that some Americans are still incapable of seeing the truth, or they are still working on behalf of the portion of the US intelligence community that remains invested in the cover-up.

Kennedy died because a hell-bent confluence of anti-Castro, pro-interventionist Vietnam war architects believed, after the Bay of Pigs, that Kennedy didn’t have the mettle that a cold war US commander-in-chief required. They swore that Kennedy had to go for the sake of national security. Enter a crew of FBI-monitored American Mafia bosses who had their own beef with the Kennedy White House. A little Fair Play for Cuba here, a bit of David Ferrie there, a touch of David Atlee Phillips and a dollop of Jack Ruby, and it all comes out in a way that adds up to more than a Mannlicher-Carcano and a sixth-floor window. Anyone with eyes can see that Kennedy was shot from the front. Why we haven’t demanded answers after all this time relates to why what happens to Snowden seems so essential to our future.

Snowden saw things he thought we, as Americans, should know. He valued the truth and thought you could handle it. He thought you needed it. Here, in America, 50 years after Kennedy was murdered, after 50 years of destroyed or altered records and vital evidence, someone risked his career, reputation and even his life to bring you the truth about what US intelligence is keeping from you.

I am uncomfortable, no doubt, with the idea that exposing secret government information could jeopardise the lives of US troops or operatives. The efforts of Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden carry with them the possible risk of real harm to US forces and agents. But I believe that without a random appearance by the truth now and then, from whatever source, we learn nothing. We are thus doomed to remain on a course bound for not only threats to our own security from within, but a spiritual death as well. As long as we choose to remain in the dark we risk a further erosion of our true nature.

And then we become a nation defined only by our consumption. We are closer to that now than we have ever been. Watergate is the dividing line in the American consciousness, separating the time when we suspected from the time we confirmed certain truths about our government. Setting aside Nixon’s own political campaign operations, Watergate’s subsequent revelations about Vietnam alone changed for ever the way a generation viewed their country and its motives. The government knew the war could not be won and yet ventured on out of pride, greed, ignorance and hatred. Fifty years laced with singlebullet theory, Eric Starvo Galt, the LAPD destroying the RFK crime scene, J Edgar Hoover, the Chicago Seven gagged in court, Nixon, Laos, Howard Hunt, Daniel Ellsberg, Woodward and Bernstein, gas shortages, airline deregulation, Ed Meese, Richard Secord, Dan Quayle, “Read My Lips”, Shutdown One, Kenneth Starr, Richard Mellon Scaife, hanging chads, Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US, yellowcake, Valerie Plame, Cheney, birthers, Shutdown Two.

That is quite a run and a reality that bears certain consequences. I am mistrustful of my government. I think it lies to us, reflexively and without a scintilla of compunction, on a regular basis. That mistrust began on 22 November 1963. In honour of the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, I stand for truth. I stand for more truth and transparency in government. The intelligence community believes that most Americans don’t want to know how the sausage is made. But I can handle it. I think most Americans, a pretty tough bunch, can handle it, too.

Alec Baldwin is an actor and author. Follow him on Twitter: @AlecBaldwin

Americans wave flags at Barack Obama's second inauguration as president. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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No, Donald Trump isn't starting World War Three in North Korea

The US president is living up to his promise to be "unpredictable". But is he using war as a sales pitch? 

“I plan on not dying,” Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen told Spin magazine in 2008. “But if I have to, I want to die in Liverpool.” And so it was that nine years later, when war in the Asia-Pacific region suddenly seemed plausible, perhaps even likely, the musician pulled out of a solo show in Tokyo that was scheduled for 14 April and, according to Japan Today, left the country without even informing the event’s organisers. “We apologise for this significant inconvenience,” they later tweeted to ticketholders, blaming “news of an armed conflict between the US and North Korea” for the abrupt cancellation.

McCulloch isn’t the only one spooked by the heightened tensions between the two countries. Japan, America’s most strategically valuable ally in east Asia, lies within striking distance of Pyongyang’s weapons – military hardware that North Korea’s deputy foreign minister, Han Song-Ryol, recently insisted would continue to be tested “on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis”. On 8 April, three days before the North’s Supreme People’s Assembly was scheduled to convene, the 333-metre-long US aircraft carrier Carl Vinson left its home port of San Diego, accompanied by missile destroyers and a cruiser. The American president declared that he was sending an “armada” to the troublesome peninsula. If this was intended as a deterrence, however, North Korea was not deterred, and it fired a test missile from an eastern port on 16 April. The experiment ended in failure: the weapon exploded almost immediately after launch. Yet the message was clear. Don’t mess.

So the Korean War, which began in June 1950 but was never formally concluded with a peace treaty, has seemingly reached a crisis of a magnitude not felt since the armistice of 1953. Kim In-ryong, North Korea’s deputy UN ambassador, has accused the US of creating “a dangerous situation in which a thermonuclear war may break out at any moment”. If that’s true, McCulloch did well to take the first plane out of the area.

Such an apocalyptic scenario, however, remains unlikely to play out. It would serve no one’s interests, least of all North Korea’s, since the country could be wiped out almost immediately. Donald Trump demonstrated as much when he deployed the “mother of all bombs” – the Moab, the largest conventional explosive that the US has ever used in combat – on Isis bunkers in Afghanistan on 13 April. Perhaps more concerning to other heads of state than the damage done by the weapon was the apparent irrationality of the strike: Isis’s presence in the country is limited in comparison to that of the Taliban, and such an attack was unlikely to lead to any long-term resolution of the various crises there.

The US president, in effect, was signalling that he could match foes such as Kim Jong-un in terms of unpredictability – something that he had already underscored on 6 April with his surprise strike on a Syrian government airbase. It was a showbiz gesture.

On the campaign trail in January last year, Trump was asked whether he would consider bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities. “I’m gonna do what’s right,” he said. “I want to be unpredictable.” Since his inauguration, he has stuck to the latter part of that plan, from his on-again-off-again flirtation with Putin to his recent reversal on Chinese currency manipulation. Trump, it seems, is a president who wants to keep both enemies and allies on their toes. It’s a deal-making mentality – the sensibility of a salesman, not of a statesman. And it’s a dangerous one when applied to the global stage, where trust between nations is essential for any meaningful diplomacy.

If Trump is applying his “art of the deal” to America’s recent international ventures, it’s worth asking what the deal – or deals – in question might be. North Korea has long been a proxy for other problems in east Asia. The winding down of its nuclear weapons programme for its own sake looks, to me, unlikely to be the president’s principal objective (the US had a chance to pursue this in 1994 when it signed the Agreed Framework with North Korea, but political enthusiasm for it cooled almost before the ink had dried). But for a Third World War, even a thermonuclear one, to be put on the table as a potential reality, surely the stakes must be high?

I have my doubts. Trump’s foreign policy seems nowhere near as coherent or developed as, say, that of Barack Obama (imperfect though his doctrine of “patience” turned out to be). America’s recent actions have seemed opportunistic, rather than strategic. Brinkmanship from either side won't achieve anything, as both are reluctant to make concessions. So what could the US be up to?

Maybe the supposedly impending nuclear apocalypse is, at least in part, a ruse to sell stuff. Among the policy areas closest to Trump’s heart during his presidential campaign was trade. Last month, Peter Navarro, the director of the White House’s national trade council, told the Wall Street Journal: “Any country we have a significant trade deficit with needs to work with us on a product-by-product and sector-by-sector level to reduce that deficit over a specified period of time… That can be achieved, if they buy more of our products than they now are buying from the rest of the world, whether it’s chemicals or corn or whether, from a national security perspective, it’s submarines or aircraft.”

The countries with the largest trade imbalances with the US are China, Japan and Germany. China denies that it is deliberately pursuing a surplus in its dealings with US (and, frankly, what could America do about it anyway?), while Germany’s trade relations are handled by the European Union and so are difficult for the US to reset on a nation-to-nation basis. But Japan – which the US vice-president, Mike Pence, visited on a trade tour this week – has a pliable leader in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Abe, a nationalist by instinct who has long struggled to remilitarise Japan and has incrementally reinterpreted his country’s pacifist constitution to permit increased military engagement, signed a significant arms trade pact with the US last year. Resistance to his agenda has been vocal in Japan at every step. However, fears of a rising threat from North Korea would give him more wriggle room. A Japanese commission is considering the potential benefits of deploying the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on its territory. This system will soon be in use in South Korea – much to the annoyance of China, which suspects that it would be capable of tracking and countering its nuclear programme.

Trump’s insistence that trade imbalances be remedied is unrealistic in many sectors, not least in the auto sector, since Japan already allows US cars into its market tariff-free and they still don’t sell. Upping trade and collaboration in arms, however, would help Abe appease Trump while getting closer to fulfilling his own goal of a militarily robust Japan. The threat of war could also allow him to establish a more active role for the nation’s “self-defence forces”. The US president, meanwhile, would have succeeded in getting one of America’s supposed “free-rider” allies to contribute something closer to what he deems its fair share, while strengthening his hand against the real adversary: Beijing.

While US arms dealers are doubtless readying their wares for sale, war with North Korea will probably be averted by pressure from China, without whose oil, airports, trade and access to financial markets the rogue nation could not function. (Some 80 per cent of North Korean exports and imports are with China.) From this perspective, the recent tensions between the US and North Korea represent an admittedly melodramatic episode of the US “pivot” to the east, more than the beginning of the end of the world.

It’s an unstable stability, but stable enough to allow for shallow political game-playing – and I suspect Trump is gaming it (as the revelation that the Carl Vinson flotilla was 3,500 miles away from North Korea and heading the wrong way at the time of Trump’s “armada” threat suggests). So McCulloch needn’t have denied Japanese fans a rendition of “Killing Moon”. The bombs aren’t likely to fall yet.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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