The economic mainsprings of U.S. foreign policy

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From 1961 to 1999, Victor Perlo’s “People vs. Profits” column in the Daily World and the People’s Weekly World set the standard for a Marxist analysis of U.S. capitalism.

Two collections of these columns have been published. In 2003, Volume I of “People vs. Profits” focused on “The Home Front.” Volume II, subtitled “The United States and the World,” has just been published.

Volume II shines a very timely spotlight on the architects and architecture of U.S. imperialism, taking the reader through the period of the Cold War waged against “communism” to the early stages of the “new Cold War,” conducted under the slogan of the “Global war against terrorism.”

The book begins with a passage from a 1953 lecture Perlo gave about the Korea War. “Let’s discuss U.S. foreign policy: what it is, who profits by it, where does it lead, what can be done?” The answer to these questions is the theme of this book.

“In summary, the foreign policy of the U.S. government is the attempt to establish U.S. monopolies as owners of everything of value everywhere, as exploiters of labor everywhere, backed by puppet rulers and by the armed forces of the United States,” Perlo writes. “That is the foreign policy of imperialism.” Fifty-three years later, these answers provide a framework for understanding the otherwise inexplicable and irrational policies pursued by our government.

Representatives of U.S. monopolies — now multinational corporations — have been and continue to be routinely appointed to the top power positions in Washington: Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), Secretary of State, the Pentagon, the National Security Council. The particular role of the oil industry is a recurring theme.

In the 1950s, John Foster Dulles, veteran Standard Oil lawyer and chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation, was secretary of state. His brother Allen Dulles was DCI when the agency toppled the democratically elected prime minister of Iran because he nationalized Iranian oil. In successive administrations, the names changed but the interests remained constant.

An article from 1971, titled “Standard Oil and the War,” identifies oil monopolies as “the biggest profiteers of all from U.S. foreign policy, and its most influential advocates.” In “Oil and Imperialism” (1969) the work of the liberal energy economist Michael Tanzer is drawn on to show “how the U.S. government aggressively equates the profit interests of the oil corporations with the national security interest of the United States.” Today this has reached its logical conclusion with a president and vice president who are directly tied to the oil industry.

An important theme of the book is that American people are also victims of the policies of U.S. imperialism. In 1980, he writes about “preparation to intervene militarily in order to regain absolute control of Middle Eastern oil for Exxon, Texaco, and the others.” That policy, he says, “is costing the American people untold billions of dollars, creating lower living standards, and resulting in failure to take rational steps to solve our energy crisis.”

In the mid-1990s, Perlo warned against President Clinton’s aggressive policy against Iraq, adopted under pressure from the Republican Congress. In 1998, as U.S. taxpayers were paying for more air strikes, Perlo wrote, “A war against Iraq would signal a new stage not only in U.S. imperialist aggression, but also, inevitably, a new stage in the drive against American workers.”

The thousands of dead and wounded in the Iraq war, along with $250 million spent every day, are costs overwhelmingly born by the working class in the U.S. It is no coincidence that along with the war, the Bush administration has supported and often led an unprecedented attack on workers’ pensions, health care, job security, safety, civil rights and unions.

This book provides fascinating insights into recent history. But it is much more. Perlo was one of the foremost Marxist economists of the last century. His approach to issues of the 1960s through the 1990s provides a framework for understanding a whole range of issues facing working-class activists today.

Efforts by developing countries to break free from U.S. corporate domination, a class struggle approach to U.S. trade policy, efforts to overcome weaknesses in centrally planned socialist economies — this book sheds light on these and other questions that are of urgent interest in people’s struggles today.

“People vs. Profits: The United States and the World” is available in softcover for $14 from International Publishers, 235 W. 23 St., New York NY 10011, or at www.intpubnyc.com.