Heinze on Totten, 'Dirty Hands and Vicious Deeds: The US Government's Complicity in Crimes against Humanity and Genocide'

Samuel Totten, ed.
Eric A. Heinze

Samuel Totten, ed. Dirty Hands and Vicious Deeds: The US Government's Complicity in Crimes against Humanity and Genocide. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018. 494 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4426-3526-5; $44.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4426-3525-8.

Reviewed by Eric A. Heinze (University of Oklahoma) Published on H-Diplo (September, 2018) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=52168

The topics of genocide and mass atrocities, and states’ responses to and complicity in them, have been a prominent feature of the human rights discourse in the post-World War II era. Yet despite the fact that it was an incident of mass atrocity that was the catalyst for the human rights movement in the first place, it was not until the 1990s that members of the international community seriously considered the possibility that they had a responsibility to try and halt gross human rights violations when they occur in other countries. Rather, especially during the Cold War, the tendency was for influential states like the United States to turn a blind eye to such atrocities. In this new collection of essays edited by the renowned historian Samuel Totten, the editor and six contributors examine the complicity of the US in seven different cases of mass atrocity, mostly during the Cold War.

The aim of this book is threefold. First, its goal is to educate primarily US citizens, university students, and activists on how the US responded to various instances of genocide and mass atrocities perpetrated by foreign governments with whom it had close relations. Its second aim is to raise awareness about how decisions made by the US government in these situations compare to the alleged ethos of the United States and the promises that elected officials made to the public upon entering office. The final aim is to motivate readers to consider whether the actions taken by the US government were proper, moral, or legal. 

Seven instances of genocide and/or crimes against humanity are examined in the text: the massacre of communists in Indonesia in 1965-66 (Kai M. Thaler), the Bangladesh genocide of 1971 (Salim Mansur), the consolidation of the Augusto Pinochet regime in Chile in 1973-77 (Christopher Dietrich), the East Timor mass murders of 1975-99 (Joseph Nevins), Argentina’s “dirty war” in 1976-83 (Natasha Zaretsky), the Guatemalan genocide of the Maya in 1981-83 (Samuel Totten), and the Rwanda genocide of 1994 (Gerry Caplan and Samuel Totten). Each chapter is written in roughly the same format, which begins with a discussion and analysis of the particular instance of genocide or mass atrocity at hand, emphasizing how and why the US government was complicit in aiding, abetting, or remaining silent in the face of such atrocities. In addition, each chapter contains copies of declassified US documents that are relevant to the case at hand, and which were used at least in part as the basis for the analysis.

The inclusion of these original, declassified documents—which include memoranda, telegrams, letters, cables, reports, discussion papers, and situation reports—is one of the truly unique and valuable features of this book, presenting the reader with a rare opportunity to examine the various decisions and actions taken by the US government that were not within the public domain until relatively recently. These documents, in addition to each author’s lucid analysis, give the reader unique insight into exactly how much US officials knew (or believed they knew) or did not know about a foreign government’s planning and execution of atrocities. They also, importantly, indicate the extent to which US officials supported the foreign government in question, how they perceived the victims of these atrocities, and what the government told the US public about these issues (and how this compared to what actually happened). 

The chapters themselves are expertly written and researched and make good use of the declassified materials included therein, providing a clear empirical basis for the conclusions of each chapter. The chapters are also written in an accessible form, appropriate for undergraduate students and a more general readership. A few of them tend to focus on historical minutiae of the case at hand, perhaps at the expense of analysis of the US role, but overall the chapters strike an appropriate balance between description and arguments about the extent of US involvement or complicity. The final picture is one of varying US involvement in these different instances of state-sponsored mass murder, ranging from providing material and moral support to those perpetrating atrocities (for example, Indonesia, Chile) to deliberately remaining uninvolved, despite clear knowledge of the events unfolding (for example, Bangladesh, Rwanda). 

Read as a whole, the volume portrays the role of US officials in these instances of mass atrocity as nothing short of shameful, demonstrating in no uncertain terms that the United States took actions that at times either contributed to or exacerbated these atrocities, or was at least indifferent to them. Yet, as the editor notes in his introduction, such behavior on the part of the US is neither unknown nor surprising. For example, the US role in the overthrow of the Salvador Allende regime in Chile and its support of the murderous Pinochet regime has been extensively documented, as have the global exploits of Richard Nixon’s National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, not only in this case but also in East Timor, Bangladesh, and Argentina.[1] In addition, this overall pattern of behavior by the US—that of putting its own national interests above concerns for the lives and well-being of people in other countries—is likewise well documented historically, and has been cogently explained by realist International Relations scholars for decades.[2] Alluded to by the editor in the introduction, these chapters would clearly support the realist explanation for the behavior of the US, which is again both well known and unsurprising for anyone familiar with Cold War history or International Relations theory. 

While admittedly this is not a work of social science, the case selection is peculiar in that the seven cases include two from Indonesia, at least four where Kissinger had a significant role in making decisions, and six from the Cold War with one from the post-Cold War (Rwanda). Why not, for example, have a chapter on the US support for Iraq during their attempted genocide of Kurds in 1988, or the 1964 CIA-backed coup in Brazil, resulting in the torturing to death of tens of thousands? With no basis for the case selection it is difficult to draw too many conclusions in a comparative context, other than support for broad, realist claims about how concerns for power and interest will normally trump concerns for human rights. 

Yet this common theme of foreign policy realism, or realpolitik, is thus largely missed as an opportunity to tie together these chapters and draw some conclusions about what they collectively tell us about US foreign policy, writ large (despite that one author compares the US to Athens as portrayed by Thucydides). Perhaps this is because, as the editor alludes, these lessons would be nothing new to most observers of US foreign policy. Researchers or more advanced students of foreign affairs would thus be doing well to examine the voluminous academic literature on these and other cases that tell the story of US complicity in the atrocities of other regimes. Yet for the student or citizen who is just beginning to become familiar with US foreign policy and US complicity in mass atrocities abroad, this collection of essays and declassified documents will be an extremely useful resource.


[1]. Kristian Gustafson, Hostile Intent: US Covert Operations in Chile: 1964-1974 (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2007); William Shawcross, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia, rev. ed. (New York: Cooper Square Press, 2002); and Greg Grandin, Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman (New York: Metropolitan, 2015).

[2]. See, for example, Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics among Nations, revised by Kenneth W. Thompson (Boston: McGraw Hill, 1993). Also see the extensive work of Stephen D. Krasner, Kenneth Waltz, Robert Osgood, and George Liska.

Citation: Eric A. Heinze. Review of Totten, Samuel, ed., Dirty Hands and Vicious Deeds: The US Government's Complicity in Crimes against Humanity and Genocide. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. September, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52168

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