Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Appendix IV Segment 1/23
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Appendix IV

1. The Craft of "Historical Engineering" 1

The vocation of "historical engineering" is as old as history, and was recognized as a professional responsibility as the United States entered World War I. Examples are given in the text and appendices, many others in the references cited. A closer look at particular cases sheds light on how the system works. Two cases will be examined here as illustrations, drawn from a major government-media project of the 1980s: "demonizing the Sandinistas" while defending Washington's terror states.

One of the proofs that Nicaragua is a cancer causing subversion to spread through the hemisphere, as plausible as others, is that the Sandinistas supplied arms for a terrorist attack on the Palace of Justice by M-19 guerrillas in Colombia in November 1985. On January 5 and 6, 1986, the New York Times published stories on the Colombian charge against Nicaragua and Nicaragua's denial. The next day, January 7, Colombia officially accepted the Nicaraguan denial. The Colombian foreign minister stated in a news conference that "Colombia accepts Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Miguel D'Escoto's explanation and considers the incident closed." This news made it to page 81 of the Boston Globe, in the sports section. The Times did not report the fact at all; rather, its editorial the following day asserted that "Colombia's patience has since been strained by evidence -- which Nicaragua disputes -- that the Sandinistas supplied guns to terrorists who staged" the November incident. On January 15, the Times reported that "American officials have linked Nicaragua to the Terrorism in Bogota -- a charge denied by the Nicaraguan Government," and published an opinion column by Elliott Abrams repeating the charges that both Abrams and the editors knew to be without merit. These were repeated in a news column of February 26, again ignoring the fact that Colombia had officially rejected the charges and considered the incident closed. The Washington Post also failed to report Colombia's acceptance of Nicaragua's disclaimer of responsibility.2

On March 18, a Times editorial entitled "The Nicaragua Horror Show" discussed Reagan's "appeal for $100 million to help the `contras' against Nicaragua's leftist tyrants." The editorial was critical of a Reagan speech so replete with falsehoods and unsupported allegations that it elicited some discomfort. The editors urged that "Mr. Reagan should have held to [the] undeniable transgressions" of the Sandinistas; he should have asked how they can be "contained and what can the United States do to promote democracy in Nicaragua," raising it to the standards of Washington's terror states. They present a list of "the hemisphere's real grievances," namely Nicaragua's "totalitarian" domestic policies and complication of "the region's security problems" by building the biggest military airfield in Central America and a deep-water port in the Caribbean, with Soviet-bloc aid, and its support for "guerrilla comrades in El Salvador." The list of "undeniable transgressions" concludes as follows: "more than piety explains why Tomás Borge, the Interior Minister, participated in a mass for the M-19 guerrillas who shot up the Palace of Justice in Bogota, Colombia," sure proof of Sandinista complicity in the terrorist attack.

Others too were impressed by this proof of Sandinista iniquity. William Beecher, diplomatic correspondent of the Boston Globe, highlighted the attendance of Borge at the "memorial service for the M-19 guerrillas" who used "arms allegedly supplied by Nicaragua"; this is the kind of "mistake" that "serious analysts" hope will be caused by "rising military pressure" against Nicaragua, he observed, apparently forgetting that, nine days earlier, his newspaper had reported Colombia's dismissal of the allegation.3

A reader in Arizona, Dr. James Hamilton, was curious to learn the basis for the renewed charge by the Times editors, which he knew had been denied by the Colombian government. He wrote a series of letters to Times editor Max Frankel, and after receiving a dismissive form letter from foreign editor Warren Hoge, to him as well. After many attempts to obtain a response to this simple question, he finally received a letter from Hoge in mid-July. "In answer to your question about Tomás Borge," Hoge wrote, "Mr. Borge attended a mass in Managua celebrated by the Rev. Uriel Molina commemorating the first anniversary of the death of Enrique Schmidt, the Minister of Communications, who had been killed in a battle with the contras. During the service, a member of the congregation shouted for prayers for the M-19 and unfurled their flag."4 Hamilton writes: "Thus, did a memorial service for a former Sandinista cabinet member become, in the hands of an editorial writer, `a mass for the M-19 guerrillas,' permitting the Times to misrepresent Borge and imply an affiliation between the Sandinistas and the M-19, using the behavior of one individual in the church on that day as support for this contention." Some tales are just too useful to abandon.5

The remainder of the "undeniable transgressions" on the Times list fare no better, and are, in fact, of some interest with regard to the hysteria evoked in establishment circles over Nicaragua's unwillingness to follow orders and its unconscionable efforts to survive a U.S. attack.

A more important requirement has been to establish a "symmetry" between the contras and the Salvadoran guerrillas. This "symmetry" was crucial for U.S. government propaganda, hence a media staple. It is readily established by ignoring the scale and character of U.S. aid to the contras and direct involvement in their terror, and by the insistent claim that although rebels in El Salvador deny receiving support from Nicaragua, "ample evidence shows it exists, and it is questionable how long they could survive without it," as James LeMoyne reported after the Central American peace accords were signed in August 1987.6 LeMoyne presented no evidence, then or ever, to support this claim. He has yet to comment on the failure of the U.S. government, which is not entirely lacking in facilities, to provide any credible evidence since early 1981 -- and little enough then -- as was noted by the World Court, which reviewed the public materials produced by the U.S. government to establish its case, dismissing them as lacking substantive basis.7 The claim is a propaganda necessity; therefore it is true.

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1 Addendum to p. 80.

2 AP, NYT, Jan. 5; Stephen Kinzer, NYT, Jan. 6; AP, BG, Jan. 8; editorial, NYT, Jan. 8; Bernard Weinraub, NYT, Jan. 15; Abrams, Op-Ed, NYT, Jan. 15; David Shipler, NYT, Feb. 26, 1986.

3 Beecher, "Pressuring Nicaragua," Jan. 17, 1986.

4 Hamilton, ms., 1987.

5 For extensive documentation on how charges known to be false are maintained for propaganda purposes, and the interesting reaction to the exposure of these facts, see references cited in appendix I, section 1.

6 NYT, Aug. 13, 1987.

7 For a detailed review of the major State Department allegations, see Morley and Petras, The Reagan Administration and Nicaragua.