cover
Nation of Sheep
William J. Lederer (C) 1961

5. The Culprits

Government by Misinformation

OUR IGNORANCE of the world outside our borders, and our assumption that an anti-Communist stance is all that a chief of state needs to qualify for our support, are errors which compound quickly and work well for our enemies. What has happened already in Cuba, Korea, Turkey, Iraq, and North Vietnam should have taught us bitter lessons. Yet our government — with the tacit approval of the press — seems content to blame all foreign revolutions on Communists; and after one debacle has passed, we proceed as before to help create the climate hi which revolution becomes almost inevitable.

In a period of history when the people — especially the young people — in the so-called backward lands are striking for freedom (in a period of revolution against tyranny unparalleled since the eighteenth century), we are assured by our government that our support of oppressive oligarchies in South Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia, Formosa, Guatemala, Jordan, Iran, and Nicaragua is constructive and successful. Yet in each of those countries revolt has already shown its violent beginnings; and in each only the United States stands between the people and the overthrow of a corrupt, dictatorial regime. In each, as it already has come in Cuba, Iraq, North Vietnam, Turkey and Korea, the upheaval will come full-blown, and hanging happily onto its coattails will be the Communists—almost as though by our invitation. Why? Who is to blame? The answer is ignorance: ignorance within bureaucratic circles, ignorance in Congress, caused partly by bureaucratic coverup, ignorance in the press, ignorance hi the American public. The question of who is to blame has many answers. First consider the executive branch of the federal government. Its methods of making decisions reveal much.


Let us assume that the President of the United States is about to make a policy decision. His office in the White House probably is quiet, and he wonders what will happen if his decision is wrong. He thinks perhaps of past presidents faced with similar grave problems affecting the survival of the United States. Now, of course, with the advent of nuclear weapons, more than the United States is at issue. Humanity is the stake. The President pushes a button on his desk; and a few moments later gives instructions to an assistant.

Within an hour the wheels of the executive department are in motion. In the sprawling Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff are meeting. The matter is urgent; the President has requested advice. Two-star generals and admirals dash in and out of the highly guarded conference room, acting as messenger boys for their four-star chiefs. They are bringing in memoranda and despatches from all over the world. Most of them are marked, SECRET or TOP SECRET.

Across the river in the new State Department Building, high civilian officials also are moving in response to the President's request. Perhaps grouped around a table, they are trying to hammer out a recommendation; and much of it will be based on advice received from American ambassadors and their staffs around the globe. The table is also cluttered with SECRET and TOP SECRET papers.

The National Security Council is having a conference under the same conditions; and so is the Central Intelligence Agency. The cream of America's strategic, diplomatic and political brains are working to "get the world picture"—before making a recommendation. They are dependent on information gathered by vast intelligence-gathering systems.

The decision, then, which the President is about to make (and likewise decisions which will be required at lower levels) will be built upon the observations and estimates submitted by American representatives in foreign posts. Who are they? They are ambassadors, generals, admirals, as well as lesser men.

They compose the total overseas membership of the Foreign Service, ICA, USIS, Central Intelligence Agency, and Army, Navy, Air force and Marine Corps. Their job is to know what is happening in foreign countries. The titles they carry may imply something else and they may have additional duties, but all of them are charged with finding out the facts, transmitting them through the chain of command and frequently making recommendations to higher authority. Vast numbers of them are charged with no other duty.

Leaving the hypothetical President to his decision, let us make an analysis of the sources of overseas information actually available to the government of the United States. The sources are many, but the most prominent and usable are:

  1. Trusted local officials.
  2. Local (foreign) newspapers, magazines, books, radio broadcasts, etc.
  3. Paid local informers.
  4. Personal observations of the nation by U. S. representatives—observations based on intimate knowledge of the people, their culture, language, emotional patterns, etc.
  5. American journalists.

Are these sources of information adequate? Can they be trusted as a basis for forming U. S. foreign policy? It is worthwhile to look at them separately.

1. Trusted Local Officials

The opinions and estimates of our ambassadors, generals, and admirals are, in practice, more influenced by local officials than by any other source.

One of the most successful of these foreigners, and typical of many in his value as a source of fact, is a popular (with American officials) Chinese general known in his own country as the Grand Eunuch. (This is fact, not fiction.) He is a big, jolly fellow who was graduated from an American university, speaks our idiom beautifully, and knows American ways well.

The Grand Eunuch carries several high-sounding political and military titles. His major job, however, is to influence important Americans (and, ipso facto, to manipulate United States public opinion and policy). He is famous as an expert in analyzing American officials. He ferrets out their favorite conversational subjects, their weaknesses—be these women, good food, liquor, sports or flattery. As soon as possible, the general (or whoever else is assigned to work with the American) is supplying the important Americans' needs. If the American has accomplished something in his life—written a book, received a medal, pulled a successful coup, made a lot of money— this accomplishment will be brought into the conversation frequently, with admiration.

Even the most innocent of enthusiasms is grist to the Grand Eunuch's mill. One American admiral was fond of children. Whenever he came to Taipei, the Grand Eunuch met the plane. And with him was a group of attractive, English-speaking youngsters—each with a small bouquet of flowers.

Another technique involves sly bribes in the form of innocent-looking presents. The official who likes fishing is taken to the place where the trout are biting—and receives a beautiful rod and reel. The bookworm gets an exquisitely bound first edition; the hunter, a shotgun. The scholar is invited to seminars with the best-known academicians. During this process, our people are skillfully entangled and obliged.

The wives of Americans are not forgotten in the race to warp our flow of accurate information. The Grand Eunuch takes care of the ladies, too. They are certain to have an intimate tea with Madame Chiang Kai-shek. If they are important enough, they will, at the appropriate moment, receive a bolt of precious silk or brocade; or a painting; or jade. But important or not, the wives get something.

And, as is well known, almost every high American official stationed in Taiwan receives either a suitably engraved silver service or a medal—or both. The least that comes his way is a beautifully painted scroll of appreciation. That is, if he has been of advantage to the Grand Eunuch's government.

If the American has been nosy and belligerent, if he has asked questions and has been tough; if he has worked 100 per cent for America and not tried to please the foreigners —then he gets nothing. Except, of course, the foreign government may request he be recalled on the grounds of "not understanding us." This would, in the eyes of the American's superiors, mark him as a failure; and his chances for promotion become less.

The above example is not unique to China. Bribery and flattery of a sort is applied to Americans in most of the foreign nations of the world. As a result, the naive Americans often end up developing a "real friendship" with ministers and heads of states. The Americans too often trust and believe the small group of foreigners who are their "opposite numbers." It is from these "opposite numbers" that much of our important information comes —the information marked SECRET and TOP SECRET.

Frequently Washington officials feel they must supplement the secret papers received from overseas. They must personally go abroad to "see for themselves." They want to get the feel of a country. What frequently happens to them is an outrage to common sense. They get what is known as "the business." Every foreign minister and agency insists on having the honor of entertaining and briefing the distinguished visitors. The ambassadors and generals stationed overseas advise the visiting American VIP's that they must accept invitations or the natives will lose face. And so the few days "inspecting" are spent in a mad rush of briefings, parties, and dinners, usually interspersed with shopping. Result: the American departs in a state of fatigue and ignorance—but with a happy collection of mementos—a silver cigarette case suitably inscribed by the prime minister, native art, etc. His total time has been spent in two or three official mansions, a couple of briefing rooms, and several stores. He has neither seen nor learned much new about the country except what our own—and what foreign officials, which is often the same thing—want him to. Occasionally there are VIP's such as Senator Mansfield, Congressmen Porter and Lindsay, to name a few, who do superb jobs of investigating an overseas area. They are unusual.

In Korea, a small group of Korean officials who were close to President Syngman Rhee had almost daily social and business associations with members of the American government. These "opposite numbers" went on rounds of cocktail parties together, had dinners together, participated in sports together and sat across from each other at many conferences. The personable and bright Koreans, in reality, became the official eyes and ears of the American government in Korea. They saw to it that our people were so busy that they had few other sources of information. And since our people spoke no Korean they had few choices of intelligence sources.

When the revolution came in 1960 and Syngman Rhee was turned out of office by his own countrymen, his top officials were thrown in jail. It was then learned, for the first time, that many of them were crooks, grafters, and liars. The proof was there. The officials we had trusted and leaned on had fooled us for thirteen years. So we deserted them in jail and looked for a new batch.

The pattern appears to be a common one. In Chungking in the 1940's there were several excellent U. S. military observers and U. S. foreign service men who went into the field and personally inspected the Communist area. They reported that the Communists were well organized and had a strong military machine. However, Ambassador Patrick Hurley, who got his information by hanging around the Chiangs, the Kungs, and the Soongs, (and backed up by a few "yes men" who were close to him at the Embassy) advised Washington not to believe our few professional observers. They simply did not know what they were talking about, he said. There was little to be [eared from the Communists, the Ambassador said; he had his information from sources which were reliable. The acceptance of Hurley's advice may well have been the basic blunder of our entire China policy.

At another tune, Ambassador Hurley received from one of his foreign-service career men a secret report on the weaknesses of the Chinese Nationalists. To authenticate the information, Hurley called in H. H. Kung, the brother-in-law of Madame Chiang, read the report out loud to him, and asked his opinion. H. H. Kung said the information was false. As a result, the Ambassador never sent the acts to Washington.

2- Foreign Newspapers, Magazines, Books, Radio Broadcasts

The foreign press contains much useful information. That is, of course, if the press is free. However, it is not free in China, Formosa, Indonesia, Cambodia, Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, Iraq, South Africa, Vietnam, several Latin American countries, and many others—not to mention members of the Soviet bloc.

Even so, a skilled analyst can learn a lot from local mass media. That is, if he knows the language and can read the papers. Such is seldom the case with Americans. In the majority of the U. S. embassies and consulates throughout the world (along with all other U. S. governmental agencies) the foreign papers are translated for us by paid foreign translators, usually hired on the spot on the recommendation of the foreign government. We, the richest and one of the best-educated nations on earth, are incapable and incompetent to do our own interpreting and translating!

Not all the blunders caused by biased interpreting and slanted translating are big ones. But the small distortions, when added up all over the globe, can accrue into a factor which debilitates our national effectiveness. In 1956, for example, when I was in Bangkok I took the embassy's translations of the Thai newspapers and compared them with translations I had had made by three other independent sources.

One of the editorials (according to the embassy translalation) praised the American ambassador for being a careful and thorough man in dealing with the Communist problems. The official version said he studied the Red's activities with patience and diligence.

The three translations I had made (each independently) gave a different story. Actually the Thai editorial said that the ambassador spent most of his time looking for Communists under every chair. The implication clearly was that he was a fool. The account officially sent to State Department was the erroneous one.

A USIS man told me he had done the same thing in Indonesia. The U. S. Embassy's Indonesian translators had for several years been changing the meanings of news items in the Indonesian papers just enough to have the Americans believe that everything was coming along all right—when actually the original writings had shown much evidence of restlessness and Communist penetration throughout the country.

A distinguished Korean political scientist—a doctor of philosophy—told me he had written a series of articles in Korean describing and analyzing the political situation in his country. He said that he later read the translations which had been made for the American officials and was surprised to find that these translations had reversed his conclusions.

3. Paid Foreign Informers

I do not have sufficient unclassified evidence on this subject to do more than guess from what is available. It appears reasonable to suspect that if our representatives are given consistently bad information by foreign officials who speak English and who are close "friends," they are given no more reliable intelligence from a commercial cloak-and-dagger foreigner.

4. Personal Observations of the Foreign Country by American Officials

Much U. S. intelligence is accepted as fact because the reporter says "I was there." However, our officials are famous throughout the world for the inaccuracy of their personal observations. This reputation is well-deserved. The most conclusive proof of our blindness is that, today, the world is in revolution; and we are not taking advantage of it. People everywhere want to be independent. Colonialism is a hated word. People rebel from oppression. We, as Americans, share then- feeling. Our country, instead of helping dissipate colonialism, often has backed the status-quo governments—the ones which the citizens dislike. One by one the people are overthrowing these governments and the Communists are claiming the credit. This is a great tragedy. The Soviets basically are colonials and tyrants; yet, because of our inadequate information and resulting blind policies, the Reds are gaining a reputation for aiding oppressed people. They do not deserve the halo, but the point is, they are wearing it.

If U. S. representatives abroad had been competent in their observations they would have seen that revolution in Cuba was bound to erupt. Yet we continued to back Batista until he was thrown out. Consequently we are hated and the Communists—who did nothing—are gaming credits and footholds.

Our officials in Cuba simply did not have enough information on what was going on. And we American citizens didn't know either.

The Department of State is suddenly rushing to send people to Africa and to spend money there. The aid program to Africa is planned to be larger than to any other area—Asia included. Why so late? Nationalism has been boiling in Africa for the last ten years. But we did nothing in that area until riots, civil war, and Communist penetration awakened us. Russians and Chinese who speak local African dialects already are hi Africa. Clearly, the Russians must have had information on the growing importance of Africa long before we did. Why should Russian officials be better informed than ours?

5. American Journalists as a Source of Information

Much sound intelligence can be gleaned from observations of expert American foreign correspondents. The tradition, however, is that only if the newspaperman confirms the ambassadors' (or ICA or USIS or U. S. military) reports, will the material be approved as accurate and utilized. For example, when Ernest K. Lindley wrote for Newsweek that the ICA and military aid programs in Laos were a success and had saved Laos for the West and that therefore Congressional criticism was old hat, his article was distributed widely by the State Department as though it were proof of success. The recent departure of Laos from the western camp into "neutralism" emphasizes the value of such "proof."

If a newsman writes that America is doing a fine job overseas, he becomes the darling of the bureaucrats; he finds it easy to get space on free junkets. If he is critical, he generally is labeled as "irresponsible," or sometimes officials imply that perhaps he is un-American.

Several years ago in Thailand, a New York Times reporter wrote a series of articles saying that the Thai government was so frighteningly corrupt that it was in danger of being overthrown. The U. S. Embassy publicly denied the report. However, the newspaperman was correct and the ambassador was wrong. It was not long after that the Thai administration was thrown out of office because the people were sick and tired of its corruption.

And again, Robert Colgrove, a Scripps Howard reporter, wrote a celebrated exposé of blunders and corruption in Vietnam. The Department of State and the ICA marshaled their strength against Colgrove and at a Congressional hearing tried to discredit not only his facts but also his character.

The State Department witnesses tried to destroy Colgrove's story by picking away at inconsequentials. He escaped by the slenderest margin. However, the events of 1960 have proved that Colgrove was right and the State Department has since been forced to admit the truth of many of his charges—but this was long after "State" had ' shown a nearly vicious anger at the reporting of derogatory news.

There have been several other Congressional hearings i on the aid programs—including some on Indochina— which have brought out far more shocking things than Colgrove wrote about. Colgrove, however, was pilloried because the articles in the Scripps Howard papers were read [ by several million Americans. They had an influence upon public opinion. Unfortunately, Americans do not read the reports of their Congressional committees, and the press usually neglects them.

I once spent an evening discussing "Information Gathering Activities of Americans Overseas" with a group of experts at Harvard University. Two ex-foreign-service officers attended. They said that our representation is excellent only in big European countries such as England, France, and Germany; but in the smaller nations of Africa, Asia, and South America we are doing a poor job. American officials do not know what is happening. We get sucked in.

The two ex-foreign-service men added that our individual officials are intelligent and patriotic; but that "the system" prevents them from doing effective work. They explained the "system."

First, it is traditional in the United States government! that a man should not be a specialist. Senior members whd sit on selection boards generally will promote the man of varied experience and pleasant personality over the knowledgeable, tough-minded specialists. This is true, they said, in all governmental agencies.

There is, therefore, no reward for being a competent and candid area-specialist, especially if the area is a small out- of-the-way country such as Laos or Korea.

Also, the ex-foreign-service men continued, most civil servants prefer stations in the more pleasant posts. For example, living in Europe is comfortable. There is good food, healthy environment, theaters, symphonies, and a culture with which we are familiar.

In contrast, residing hi a place like Pnompenh or Vientiane is rugged and unpleasant. There are debilitating factors including malaria, intestinal parasites, and poisonous snakes. The climate is uncomfortable; luxuries and amusements are few.

Why, then, should a career man volunteer to become a specialist in an area which brings nun little prestige, promotion, or physical comfort?

Also, the two ex-foreign-service men officers told of another factor which diminishes the effectiveness of Americans abroad. The foreign nations themselves don't want knowledgeable and vigorous Americans stationed there. Such astute experts recognize the ploys, the grabbings, the intrigues which the natives use on inexperienced "trying-to-please" officials.

During World War II, for example, when an American command was being established in China, a Chinese official told the American commander that now that China had achieved independent status, it was not right for the Chinese to suffer the indignities and insults which previously had been given them by "old China hands." He requested, therefore, that only inexperienced, non-Chinese speaking Americans be sent to China.

The American commander believed this line completely. China experts were forbidden in the area. Instead a bunch of patriotic ignoramuses (on China) joined the command. Each was assigned an official Chinese interpreter and it was no accident that the interpreters were members of Chiang Kai-shek's highly trained secret police.

Once again, U. S. activities involving hundreds of thousands of troops and multibillion-dollar expenditures were run on phony information. Today China, the world's largest nation, is Communist, and we have no diplomatic relations with it whatsoever.

Our foreign-relations business, then, is being run on doubtful facts. We are like a sandlot team sent to play in the World Series. No wonder many of our leaders have been too timid to make difficult decisions. No wonder they have procrastinated, and seem to hope that America's good reputation will somehow pull us through. They have not had accurate information on which to base decisions. Mostly they have had the second-hand rumors, guesses, and propaganda supplied by ill-informed amateurs.