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Pt. 2 of Interview with Adam Hochschild on Voices of Dissent amidst the Din of War

Web ExclusiveMay 10, 2011
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Historian and author Adam Hochschild talks to Democracy Now! about his latest book, To End All Wars, and the comparison between pacifist struggles in World War I-era Britain to the U.S. during Vietnam and Afghanistan and Iraq today. We also discuss Hochschild’s earlier book, King Leopold’s Ghost, about the horrific colonial exploitation of present-day DRC by Belgium’s King Leopold and the U.S.-backed assassination of the Congo’s first elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba.

AMY GOODMAN: Adam Hochschild is our guest. His latest book is To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion. Before that, he wrote Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves, and before that, King Leopold’s Ghost, about Belgium and the Congo, about King Leopold. I want to talk about all of this. On the issue of movements that make a difference and movements that don’t, your title, To End All Wars, why did you choose it?

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Well, this is a phrase, “the war to end all wars,” that was attributed to Woodrow Wilson as justification for getting the U.S. into the First World War, because he, of course, had campaigned for office and won election in 1916 on the promise that he would keep the U.S. from getting drawn in to this war. A couple of his biographers claim Wilson never actually said those words, but nonetheless, the phrase went into wide circulation. And I picked up the last part of it, “to end all wars,” because I think that’s what we should be doing. And, you know, I would like people to see some of the continuities between the madness involved in how countries got into war at that time and how they still do today.

AMY GOODMAN: Crackdown on dissent is a big part of this story, thousands of soldiers in harsh conditions imprisoned, dissidents, journalists imprisoned for their views. Explain that, how the state operates. And talk about it then, and talk about it today.

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Well, you know, states often repress with a peculiar combination of harshness and tolerance. Very interesting looking at Britain during the First World War, because they were extremely judicious about when to be hard and when to be soft. They did put these draft refusers in prison if they refused to do alternative service. They didn’t suppress most of the antiwar publications, because they were very worried about public opinion in the United States.

For the first three years or so of the war, Britain was eagerly trying to get the U.S. to come in on the Allied side, which finally did happen in mid-1917. Up to that point in time, they were very conscious of not doing anything which could draw bad press in the United States. And you can actually find correspondence among government officials. You know, should we put so-and-so in jail? No, it’s likely to get into the American press. Nonetheless, there were ways that they could make life difficult for those antiwar publications, for example, by making certain that they got very little of the extremely scarce supply of paper, stuff like that.

And then there are certain key people that they went after and made sure that they were put behind bars —- Bertrand Russell. The country’s leading investigative journalist, Edmund Dene Morel, who had played such a big role in the Congo scandal in the previous decade, very strong voice against the war, he was sent to prison. And unlike Russell, his six-month sentence was at hard labor and at a time when Britain was already experiencing shortages of food and of coal for heat. He was in prison over the wintertime, and prisons were at the absolute bottom of the heap in terms of getting what food and coal was available. And Morel writes, you know, very movingly about how it was to be freezing without enough blankets at night in a prison cell. At least -—

AMY GOODMAN: Why was he in prison?

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Because of his writings. You know, there was an excuse. The excuse that they used was that there was a regulation against sending antiwar propaganda to neutral countries. And he had sent something he had written to Switzerland. But there’s actually an internal document from the British Foreign Office where one official says to another, “We need to get this man safely lodged in jail,” because he was such a strong, forceful antiwar voice.

AMY GOODMAN: You talked about the Belgian Congo a decade before. Your book, King Leopold’s Ghost, to say the least, haunting, about a horrific episode in world history. Share that with us for a moment, and especially for those who are trying to understand Congo today, to understand its history.

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Well, here’s some of the continuities there. The Congo today, Democratic Republic of Congo, is roughly the same boundaries as the Belgian Congo, which existed from 1908 to 1960, and before that, something known as the Congo Free State, which was the personal, privately owned property of King Leopold II of Belgium, before it became a Belgian colony.

And throughout all of these incarnations, this territory has been a place where outsiders have helped themselves to its enormous riches. The first of those, really, was human beings, because it was a great source for the Atlantic slave trade. The ancestry of the majority of black Brazilians today is from the Congo River Basin, who were taken as slaves by the Portuguese across the South Atlantic.

Then the Atlantic slave trade came to a stop, middle of the 19th century. King Leopold got his hands on this country. He was —

AMY GOODMAN: The king of Belgium.

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: The king of Belgium. Belgium didn’t want a colony, so he took his own colony.

AMY GOODMAN: His own personal colony.

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Privately owned, and recognized as such by all the major nations of the world, starting with the United States. We were the first to recognize his possession of this territory.

He was interested in ivory, which was then something enormously valuable. And then very soon after he got his hands on the territory, they discovered that it was very rich in wild rubber, and there was a worldwide rubber boom on, because they had just invented the inflatable tire, and they needed rubber to coat telephone, telegraph wires and stuff like that. And he turned, essentially, much of the adult male population into a slave labor force to gather this wild rubber, with colossally — a colossal number of deaths resulting. Population decreased by about 10 million over the course of 40 years.

Then it became a Belgian colony, and Leopold died shortly after that. And the Belgians were interested in a huge variety of other minerals: copper, gold, uranium, palm oil and so on.

Then it became an independent country in 1960, but with a very weak and corrupt government, and for a long time under the dictatorship of the American-backed dictator, Mobutu, who finally was overthrown and died in 1997. And then it’s been largely in chaos since that time, with a very, very complicated, multi-sided civil war, the underlying theme of which is still a quest for riches.

I was there a year or two ago, and you can just see on all sides the wealth draining out of this country. When I was on the street in Goma, eastern Congo, with a couple of other foreigners, because we clearly look like foreigners, a guy came up to us and offered to sell us some uranium — named a price, but said it was negotiable. You look up overhead, and there are planes flying tin ore out of the country. The roads are so bad that the trucks can’t get to the mines.

AMY GOODMAN: The coltan in our cell phones.

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Much of it comes from there. A lot of gold. Congo exports more than a billion dollars worth of gold each year. And I visited a gold mine, where miners were digging gold. And, you know, these were people digging for gold by hand, using the same kinds of pick-and-shovel techniques — and then you run water through a sluice, and the gold dust drops to the bottom — that miners used in California in 1849. And they were earning about a dollar or two a day, doing this back-breaking work. And the gold was flowing out of the country.

AMY GOODMAN: This year marks the 50th anniversary of the U.S.-backed assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected leader of what’s now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. I want to play a clip of the former CIA agent John Stockwell talking about the CIA’s plans to assassinate Lumumba.

JOHN STOCKWELL: The CIA had developed a program to assassinate Lumumba, under Devlin’s encouragement and management. The program they developed, the operation, didn’t work. They didn’t follow through on it. It was to give poison to Lumumba. And they couldn’t find a setting in which to get the poison to him successfully in a way that it wouldn’t appear to be a CIA operation. I mean, you couldn’t invite him to a cocktail party and give him a drink and have him die a short time later, obviously. And so, they gave up on it. They got cold feet. And instead, they handled it by the chief of station talking to Mobutu about the threat that Lumumba posed, and Mobutu going out and killing Lumumba, having his men kill Lumumba.

INTERVIEWER: What about the CIA’s relationship with Mobutu? Were they paying him money?

JOHN STOCKWELL: Yes, indeed. I was there in 1968 when the chief of station told the story about having been, the day before that day, having gone to make payment to Mobutu of cash — $25,000 — and Mobutu saying, “Keep the money. I don’t need it.” And by then, of course, Mobutu’s European bank account was so huge that $25,000 was nothing to him.

AMY GOODMAN: Former CIA agent John Stockwell talking about the CIA’s plans to assassinate Lumumba. What happened to the first democratically elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo?

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Right. Lumumba was killed in January of 1961, with strong encouragement from the United States and Belgium. And this was an assassination of this country’s, the Congo’s, first democratically chosen leader. And I think it was a very ominous moment, because Lumumba was considered a danger by the U.S., Belgium and Europe, because he was somebody who said, “Political independence for Africa is not enough. We must have control over our wealth, over our resources, as well.” And that was considered beyond the pale. They wanted him dead, and they wanted Mobutu in power — you know, a deeply corrupt man who saw to it that the U.S. and Belgium and other countries could continue to profit from the Congo, which they did.

AMY GOODMAN: King Leopold, to understand the brutality back then, and then to move forward to Mobutu, who followed Patrice Lumumba, the U.S.’s man in Congo, what King Leopold did — the hands?

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Well, he developed this slave labor system, where, in order to get people to gather wild rubber in the rainforest, he would send his soldiers into village after village. They’d take the women hostage in order to force the men to go into the rainforest and gather wild rubber, for days, sometimes weeks, at a time. There were many rebellions against this draconian regime. And the army, which was black conscript soldiers under white officers, was used to suppress these rebellions.

The officers were very wary of how many bullets they issued to the soldiers, because they didn’t want the bullets to be used in a mutiny against them. So, for every bullet that a soldier was given, he had to bring back a hand severed from the person he had shot with it, just to be sure that the soldier wasn’t keeping the bullet for use in a mutiny or using it for hunting or something like that. So, often soldiers fired at somebody, a rebel, and missed. You know, they would go and chop the hand off a living person. So there are horrifying photographs from that time of living people, often kids, you know, with missing hands. This sort of became one of the symbols of this regime that was picked up and put on screens with slide projectors worldwide by this remarkable protest movement that grew up to denounce it.

AMY GOODMAN: The turning point of Patrice Lumumba being assassinated and the movements for liberation that sprung up all over Africa, talk about those.

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Well, I think for many Africans, Lumumba’s assassination 50 years ago this year was a message that despite political independence, Africa was not going to be allowed to go its own way, because this man who was killed was, you know, demanding that Africa have control over its own resources, and it was pretty clear that the U.S. and western Europe didn’t want to allow that. And I think, indeed, there has been a somewhat neocolonial relationship that has continued between the developed world and Africa.

Africa remains a source of a tremendous amount of natural resources, oil being the thing that the U.S. is most interested in right now. And I think the main concern, not just for the United States and Europe, but for China, which also has a very similar relationship to Africa, is that this flow of natural resources outside the continent not be interrupted. That’s why we have something called AFRICOM, the Africa Command, inside the U.S. military. It seems a little strange to have something like that when we’re not officially engaged in any war in Africa. They haven’t yet found an African country willing to host this command, so it is, I believe, in Germany at the moment. But they want to be prepared for any resource wars that have to be fought to keep the oil flowing.

AMY GOODMAN: Last question. You’re the co-founder of Mother Jones magazine, independent publication. I want to talk about the media and the role of the media in silencing opinion, as well. I mean, not Mother Jones, but the corporate media in this country. Hard to call it mainstream, because I don’t think it represents mainstream America. Those who are opposed to war, those who are opposed to torture, they are the mainstream, and that is not what’s reflected in the corporate media. But you, too — as we began this broadcast with Tony Kushner, who was silenced, was going to lose the honorary degree he was going to get, that then, because of the outcry, won that degree — you, too, are on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace. The idea of the squelching of dissent, whether we’re talking about U.S. policy or Israeli government policy?

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: That’s right. I think, you know, in the United States, we don’t squelch dissent in the way that many countries do it, where it’s sort of extremely harsh, extremely overt, and people get shot or sent to prison for voicing unpleasant opinions. I would certainly rather live in a country where they threaten to withdraw an honorary degree from you than where they put you up against a wall and shoot you because you have an opinion that doesn’t accord with that of the government. And I do appreciate that we have a lot more ability to dissent here than people do in many, many countries.

Nonetheless, there is a kind of an orthodoxy that prevails through the media. And when you read, you know, even the New York Times, which I’m addicted to and spend 45 minutes or an hour with every day, you know, there are blinders on what their coverage is. You can read endless articles about the debates over the budget, for example, and so seldom does anybody really raise the question of slashing the military budget. Yes, there is a deficit, but why do we talk so little about the fact that the United States spends almost as much on its military as the entire rest of the world combined? That is just sort of taken for granted. So I think we live in a time where I wouldn’t say dissent is squashed, but there are all kinds of ideas that are taken for granted.

When you see journalists using phrases like, you know, “military needs of the United States” — you know, that we have this absolutely colossal military budget, you know, a dozen aircraft carrier battle groups at sea, hundreds of overseas bases — I mean, how can you call that a need? The very language reflects the assumption that people make. And those who question it are — you know, seldom get the kind of space that I think they should get in the media, except on programs like this. And it’s an honor to be here and to be on with somebody like Tony Kushner.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you heartened by the response to Tony Kushner losing his degree? That’s clearly what turned it around.

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Yeah, I really was. And I actually think that in the last year or two, with the emergence of organizations like J Street in Washington, there is a bit of a dam broken, and that it is possible at last, I hope, to strongly criticize policies of the Israeli government without being called an anti-Semite. I think there is a realization that by backing Israel so unconditionally for so many decades, the U.S. has really backed itself into a corner, from which it’s going to be very, very difficult to engineer a permanent and lasting and just Mideast peace settlement. I think there are more people recognizing this now, although I still do think the Israel lobby is by far the strongest lobby in Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: Adam Hochschild, I want to thank you very much for being with us.

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