By Kristin Y. Christman.
First published in the Albany Times Union.
John D. Rockefeller was incensed. It was the 1880s, and oil drillers had struck such enormous wells in Baku that Russia was selling oil in Europe at prices that undercut Rockefeller’s Standard Oil.
Having ruthlessly swallowed his American competitors, Rockefeller now schemed to destroy Russian competition. He lowered prices for Europeans, raised prices for Americans, spread rumors questioning Russian oil’s safety and barred cheaper Russian oil from U.S. consumers.
Greed and rivalry tainted U.S.-Russian relations from the start.
Despite Rockefeller’s unscrupulous tactics, he saw himself as virtuous and his competitors as vicious scoundrels. The product of a religious mother and swindling father, Rockefeller perceived Standard Oil as a savior of sorts, “rescuing” other companies like boats that would have sunk without him, ignoring the fact that he was the one who had pierced their hulls.
And for a century, we see a hypocritical pattern of U.S. thinking that, like Rockefeller, interprets its own behaviors as innocent and those of Russia as malicious.
Consider U.S. reaction to Russia’s signing of the 1918 Brest-Litovsk Treaty to withdraw from World War I. Nine million Russians were dead, wounded, or missing. It was Lenin’s promise to withdraw Russia from World War I that gained him mass Russian support.
Did the U.S. perceive Russia as peace-loving? Not a chance. The U.S., absent for most of the war, called Russia’s withdrawal traitorous. In 1918, 13,000 U.S. troops invaded Russia to topple the Bolsheviks. Why? To force those Russians back into World War I.
Rockefeller’s contemporary, banker magnate Jack P. Morgan Jr., had his own reasons to hate Communism. The Communist International had singled out bankers as arch-enemies of the working class, and a hateful underdog mentality spawned the ignorant belief that murdering the elite would promote justice.
Morgan’s valid fears, however, were skewed by prejudice and rivalry. He perceived striking workers, Communists and Jewish business rivals as conspiratorial traitors while he, who had earned a $30 million commission selling munitions to World War I Allies, was but a vulnerable target.
Like Morgan, Americans held valid criticisms against the USSR, including Bolshevik ruthlessness and Stalin’s brutal totalitarianism. Yet, significantly, U.S. Cold War policy was directed against neither brutality nor oppression. Instead, it targeted those whose land and labor reforms for the poor threatened wealthy U.S. businessmen’s profits. Like Morgan, the U.S. falsely elevated business rivalry to moral rivalry.
In 1947, President Harry Truman adopted diplomat George Kennan’s belligerent policy of Soviet containment and dressed up paranoia with a mantle of holy mission. In Greece, Korea, Guatemala and beyond, the U.S. indiscriminately directed violence against leftists, regardless of whether leftists observed humane and democratic ideals.
Not all U.S. officials agreed that slaughtering thousands of Greeks and millions of Koreans was a step toward the light. Nonetheless, in the dogmatic spirit of anti-democracy, dissenters were fired or resigned. Remarkably, Kennan himself later admitted that the U.S. imagination had run wild and falsely “reconjured daily” a “totally malevolent adversary” so deceptively real, “to deny its reality appears as an act of treason. …”
Currently, alleged Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s underhandedness is accused of marring U.S. democracy, yet while this receives indignant attention, the hypocrisy is hard to stomach, for Americans have corrupted democracy at home and abroad far more than any Russian hacker. Like Rockefeller, the U.S. sees dishonesty only in its rivals.
One century-old undemocratic U.S. tradition is the appointment to key government posts in the departments of Defense and State, CIA and National Security Council of individuals intricately linked with Rockefeller and Morgan affiliations. It’s a dangerous practice: When a single stratum of society dominates, it’s more likely that policymakers will share identical blind spots that warp policy.
Consider Rockefeller and Morgan’s tunnel vision. Obsessed with rivalry for railroad ownership, neither one considered how railroads were destroying Native American life and millions of bison, slaughtered in sickening railroad hunting excursions.
These powerful men were incapable of comprehending so much. Why, then, should this mentality be granted enormous influence over U.S. policy, which needs to consider broader implications for everyone, not just the rich and powerful?
Yet if Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Standard Oil descendant ExxonMobil, ally with Putin to litter the land with pipelines and seize oil from the Caspian Sea, it will be a rerun of Rockefeller, Morgan and the railroads: greed mixed with obliviousness to human and environmental suffering.
And if Trump joins Putin to pummel the Middle East in war, Cold War self-righteousness will be recycled, with an acute sensitivity to U.S. fears and an obtuse insensitivity to enemy fears.
Undeniably, the U.S. and Russia are both guilty of belligerency and injustice. To evolve, we must ensure that neither alliances nor animosities feed greed, provoke fear, or inflict suffering.
Kristin Y. Christman has degrees in Russian and public administration from Dartmouth, Brown and the University at Albany.