How Reagan Enforced US Hypocrisy

Exclusive: The mainstream U.S. news media has so fully bought into the U.S. government’s narrative on Ukraine that almost no one sees the layers of hypocrisy, an achievement in “group think” that dates back to Ronald Reagan’s war against “moral equivalence,” writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

Official Washington’s hearty disdain for anyone who cites U.S. hypocrisy toward the Ukraine crisis can be traced back to a propaganda strategy hatched by the Reagan administration in 1984, dismissing any comparisons between U.S. and Soviet behavior as unacceptable expressions of “moral equivalence.”

This “moral equivalence” concern stemmed, in part, from the prior decade’s disclosures of U.S. government misconduct – the Vietnam War, CIA-sponsored coups and other intelligence abuses at home and abroad. In that climate of heightened skepticism, U.S. journalists felt it was their job to show some skepticism and hold U.S. officials accountable for their behavior.

President Ronald Reagan.

President Ronald Reagan.

For President Ronald Reagan, that meant journalists taking note of his administration’s support for terrorism by the Contra rebels in Nicaragua and for death-squad-tainted governments slaughtering civilians in countries such as Guatemala and El Salvador.

So, to counter this P.R. problem, Reagan administration officials developed a propaganda “theme” that, in effect, asserted that the U.S. government should not be held to the same human rights standards as the Soviet government because the United States was morally superior to the Soviet Union.

According to documents recently released by the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, the Reagan administration established a “Moral Equivalence Working Group” in 1984 reporting to Walter Raymond Jr., who had been a top psychological warfare specialist at the CIA before being moved to Reagan’s National Security Council where he oversaw a wide-ranging program of domestic and foreign propaganda.

Though the working group’s core complaint was something of a straw man, since it would be hard to find anyone who equated the U.S. and USSR, the Reagan administration made clear that anyone who continued to apply common moral standards to the two governments would be accused of “moral equivalence.”

This framing proved effective in tarring U.S. journalists and human rights activists as, in essence, Soviet apologists. The “theme” was most famously expressed by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick at the Republican National Convention in 1984 when she decried anyone who would “blame America first.”

Link to the Present

As an Associated Press reporter, I encountered this “moral equivalence” attack line when I questioned State Department officials about their hypocrisy in applying strict human rights standards to Nicaragua’s Sandinista government while excusing far more serious abuses by the Contras and other U.S. allies in Central America.

Neocon intellectual Robert Kagan, who then was a senior official in the State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America, warned me that I was edging dangerously close to the line on “moral equivalence.”

Ironically, Kagan’s wife, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, is now at the forefront of U.S. support for the Ukrainian coup, which relied on neo-Nazi militias to overthrow a democratically elected president, though the official U.S. narrative is that this was a “democratic” uprising. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Neocons and the Ukraine Coup.”]

Over the past three decades, the argument against “moral equivalence” has changed little, though it has morphed into what is now more commonly described as American “exceptionalism,” the new trump card against anyone who suggests that the U.S. government should abide by international law and be held to common human rights standards.

Today, if you make the case that universal rules should apply to the United States, you are accused of not embracing America as an “exceptional” country. As a result, very few mainstream observers in Official Washington even blink now at the U.S. government taking contradictory positions on issues such as intervening in other countries.

Invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan are “justified” as are drone strikes and aerial bombardments of countries from Pakistan to Yemen to Somalia to Libya. It’s also okay to threaten to bomb Syria and Iran.

Supporting the overthrow of sovereign governments is also fine – for the United States but not for anyone else. Just during the Obama administration, the U.S. government has backed coups in Honduras, Libya and now Ukraine. U.S.-endorsed secessions are okay, too, as with oil-rich South Sudan from Sudan.

Yet, when the geopolitical shoe is on the other foot – when Russia objects to the violent overthrow of Ukraine’s duly-elected President Viktor Yanukovych and, as a result, supports a secession referendum by Crimea on whether its citizens want to join the Russian Federation – Official Washington cries out in moral outrage.

Suddenly, we see mainstream American journalists searching for some clause in Ukraine’s constitution that prohibits secession, though these journalists had no problem with the violation of the same constitution’s procedures for impeaching a president, rules ignored by the coup regime with barely a peep from U.S. news outlets.

Framing the Debate

This ever-shifting moral playing field was defined by the Reagan administration’s propagandists in the mid-1980s, coincidentally in the iconic year 1984, according to documents at the Reagan Library. I found in Raymond’s files a “concept paper” for a conference to address “moral equivalence,” attached to a memo dated Sept. 4, 1984. The paper read:

“The Moral Equivalence Working Group … has for some time been examining ways to counter the common (and for US, very damaging) concept of the ‘moral equivalence of the superpowers,’ i.e., the notion that there is no moral distinction to be made between the US and the USSR, particularly in the areas of foreign and military policy. … Moral equivalence is a particularly insidious problem because it permeates almost every level of public discourse both at home and abroad.”

The “concept paper” offers no specific examples of anyone actually engaging in this “moral equivalence,” but it insists that the problem is widespread among elites and could be detected when people, for instance, compared the U.S. invasion of Grenada to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The paper reads:

“This is not to suggest that moral equivalence is in fact a majority perception. There is reason to believe that it is primarily an elite problem and that the broad mass of people has a sounder instinct on the inherent moral differences between the US and Soviet systems. However, given the dominance of morally equivalent thinking among elites, particularly in the media and in academia, public resistance to moral equivalence is provided with little informational or intellectual support.”

The paper then proposes a high-level conference sponsored by the neoconservative Center for Strategic and International Studies with the goal of analyzing “the Moral Equivalence misconception” and devising ways “to combat the problem” including addressing “intellectual fashion and ways to have an impact on it.”

Over the intervening three decades, these U.S. government’s propaganda efforts against holding the United States to the same moral standards as other countries have proved remarkably successful, at least within U.S. opinion circles.

It is now common for mainstream journalists to accept the principle of “American exceptionalism” in both implications of the word: that the United States is a wonderfully exceptional nation and that it is exempted from international law.

Indeed, it is rare for anyone in mainstream journalism to assert that the United States should conform to international law, i.e. respecting the sovereign borders of other countries. Yet, the same opinion leaders express outrage when Russia intervenes in Ukraine in the wake of a neo-Nazi-spearheaded coup on Russia’s border.

No longer do mainstream U.S. journalists and academics try to apply the same rules to Washington and Moscow. The “problem” that Reagan’s team detected in the 1980s has been solved. Today, American hypocrisy is the accepted “group think.”

[For more of Consortiumnews.com’s exclusive coverage of the Ukraine crisis, see “Crimea’s Case for Leaving Ukraine,” “The ‘We-Hate-Putin’ Group Think”; “Putin or Kerry: Who’s Delusional?”; “America’s Staggering Hypocrisy”; “What Neocons Want from Ukraine Crisis”; “Ukraine: One ‘Regime Change’ Too Many?”; “A Shadow US Foreign Policy”; “Cheering a ‘Democratic’ Coup in Ukraine”; “Neocons and the Ukraine Coup.”]

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

Share this Article:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks
  • NewsVine
  • Technorati
  • email

26 comments on “How Reagan Enforced US Hypocrisy

  1. deang on said:

    Thanks for explaining this. I had heard the term “moral equivalency” but had always been baffled by it. I had no idea it had to do with the idea that the US was morally superior to other countries and thus shouldn’t be compared with any other nation. Kind of a sick idea.

  2. LucasFoxx on said:

    You still have not explained this: “neo-Nazi militias to overthrow a democratically elected president.” Nor have you explained how a democratically elected parliament became a “neo-Nazi militia”.

    • Take a look at CounterPunch and InformedComment and the Guardian for better information than you’re getting from the mass media. In Ukraine, the US sponsored neo-nazi militias to overthrow the democratically elected administration, and then chased out or intimidated their opponents in the representative assembly.

  3. LucasFoxx on said:

    I had no idea Muammar Gaddafi was a democratically elected leader of Libya. Years ago I found Consortiumnews informative and insightful. I’m beginning to question everything I’ve read here. None of my efforts to validate the reporting here on the Ukraine have panned out, and nothing here is documented except within it’s own bubble.

    • Care to document the “efforts” you’ve made to find out about Nazi backing (not exactly neo) for the ouster to the Ukrainian PM?

      It’s pretty easy to find others making the point about Nazis in the Ukraine.

      • LucasFoxx on said:

        Helpful references. No actual link to recent US sponsoring of these groups, but that was not the question I asked (here). Juan Cole’s place had another Parry piece that said the same thing without citation (although a look at the NED’s Board of Directors is not comforting). I was able to find some things to look up from those links. Yes, none of that is being covered here in the states. It is disturbing that these groups have found a common enemy in Russian manipulation, and are being given key appointments. But I still object to calling it a coup. Of a democratically elected Rada of 450 Deputies, 86% voted for this. Article 111 of their constitution allows them to remove the President with only a 2/3 vote. I’m concerned about the demographics of that 86% majority, but like in the US, not all Republicans are Nazis and not all Democrats are Code Pink. I am not being flippant. You’ve given me some insight, and the future is not bright for those people. But it is a constitutional democracy. So far I’m not finding anything to shake my support of the efforts of the current US administration or the democracies of Europe in protecting democracy in Ukraine.

      • LucasFoxx on said:

        Previous to the references from John, above, the only things I’d found on Nazi backing of the ouster was Putin and his puppets, a BBC Nightside story, RT stories, and a debate on Democracy Now with a CIA analyst decades out of the loop.

        • Gyan Kanal on said:

          “The European Parliament … 8. Is concerned about the rising nationalistic sentiment in Ukraine, expressed in support for the Svoboda Party, which, as a result, is one of the two new parties to enter the Verkhovna Rada; recalls that racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic views go against the EU’s fundamental values and principles and therefore appeals to pro-democratic parties in the Verkhovna Rada not to associate with, endorse or form coalitions with this party;”

          http://www.moonofalabama.org/2014/03/ukraine-eu-parliament-warns-of-association-with-svoboda.html

  4. Tom Cuddy on said:

    American Exceptionalism is English for deutschland Uber Alles

    • F. G. Sanford on said:

      Thanks- I got a great laugh out of that!

      • LucasFoxx:

        I don’t think anybody is claiming that Nazis are the only ones backing the ouster of the PM (not a president) in Ukraine.

        However there are certainly proNazi parties represented in the Ukraine’s parliament–and the thugs in the street be the other neoNazi factor.

        Even a blogger at the NY Review of Books who backed the coup, had to admit that there’s a large antisemitic Nazi factor in the mix.

        Remember the first thing this rump parliament did was to revoke the official status of the Russian language, that’s not exactly neoNazi but it’s a delusional nationalism–delusional because it would be about like revoking English as a official language in the Republic of Ireland.

        Search the name of this Ukrainian party: Svoboda.

        Here’s one BBC link, maybe you read it:

        http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20824693

        Make sure to note the 2004 activities and name of that party.

        • LucasFoxx on said:

          Yes. That was one of the parties I looked into. They definitely resemble our Tea Party. Thanks for the link.

          • Lukas–

            I think most, not all , TeaPary types avoid saying: “Round up the Jews and communists.”

            There’s a book from about 1990: “Old Nazis, the New Right, and the Republican Party”.

            That book explains some direct ties between Ukrainian Nazis and exile groups in the 1980s–it’s their grandchildren on the streets in the Ukraine today.

            Safari, on a new Mac, has forced this box to be really narrow, wonder how it will view with other web browsers?

  5. A very good article. Very amusing to hear that the Reaganites were worried that elites were not buying the propaganda about moral superiority. But then anyone who would believe Reagan had not gone far beyond the Mickey Mouse Club.

    The double standard is, as you note, an artifact of the utter hypocrisy of the plutocracy and its aspiring apologists. Truly those who manufacture our right wing propaganda merely game the system for money from their kind. Those who buy into the propaganda mostly have no concern about truth either, and merely want a nicely packaged economical narrative product after dinner to help them equate profitable conformism with patriotism and moral rightness. As H.L. Mencken put it, “The average man avoids truth as diligently as he avoids arson, regicide, and piracy on the high seas, and for the same reasons, because it is dangerous, no good can come of it, and it doesn’t pay.” So we are much indebted to our braver journalists exposing the propaganda game.

    • Great comment John – - – I especially think the Mencken quote is very apropos. Though he was often acerbic and cynical, still he stressed part of the ‘body-politic’ that is too often downplayed by many pundits, arguably our progressive side even more than the reactionary right: the INTENTIONALLY ignorant sector of the voting population. Those individuals who virtually INSIST on having bumper-sticker answers, playground responses, discrepant politics (more services/lower taxes), etc and just seem to look for any politician who will indulge them in these destructive ideas. THEY’RE at least 50% responsible for the election & re-election of Nixon, Reagan, W, and now the tea-party politicians. There’s always been hucksters and charlatans in politics, but in a democracy (or democratic-republic, if you wish) we’re ultimately free to vote for the candidate that is the least so, but too many casual voters don’t even bother to do that…

  6. F. G. Sanford on said:

    Mr. Foxx (news?) keeps sniveling that he can’t understand how a president appointed by a democratically elected parliament represents an illegal coup staged by neo-Nazis. According to Ukraine’s constitution, a President may be removed by impeachment with 338 votes in parliament. The neo-Nazi coup leaders prevented 122 members of the parliament from attending the vote by arresting them or threatening their lives. There were only 328 members present when the vote was cast, and neo-Nazi thugs were present to, in their own words, “insure that the members voted correctly”. The vote was constitutionally invalid. Yanukovych is still the president

    This is the same technique Hermann Goering used when Hitler accomplished his “gleichschaltung” or “consolidation” of authority. The term “rump parliament” has been used frequently in discussions about Ukraine’s present crisis. When a significant number of members are prevented from voting due to coercion, that is, by definition, a “rump” parliament. Named for events in1648, Colonel Pride purged the English Parliament of opposition, effectively bringing it under control of the army. In other words, it no longer represented anything “democratic”. Use of the term implies knowledge of the definition. Hitler and Mussolini did the same thing.

    In Goerings’s case, he had been made Reichstag President and Minister of the Interior. He simply had several Social Democrat, Socialist and Christian Democrat members of the Reichstag rounded up and sent to Dachau. Now that Svoboda and Pravy Sector control the interior ministry, the justice department and the state police, the similarity is hard to deny. They are both parties with ties to neo-Nazis.

    But there is good news! When Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, flew to Great Britain in 1941, Churchill had him arrested. Yatseunyuk, or “Yats”, is supposed to arrive in Washington, DC this week. As a gesture to moral equivalency, The President has the option to arrest him for Crimes against Peace, Crimes against Humanity and several international treaty and human rights violations. Shit, I bet he could win the Nobel Prize for that!

  7. Joe Tedesky on said:

    F.G. Love what your saying. If President Obama would arrest ‘Yats’ when he comes to visit that would revive my belief in American honesty once again.

    The problem I am having these days is more and more people I know are saying, ‘what about that Putin’? I sometimes reply, ‘you mean the Putin who avoided our war with Syria’? These friends just kind of smile and say, ‘no, how he invaded Ukraine’. My friends are not stupid, but most of them never heard of Victoria ‘FU THE EU’ Nuland. Then I tell them to stop believing the MSM news.

    We have a serious news problem in this country, and I don’t know what can be done about it. At least I know we are the good guys! Right?

  8. Jonny James on said:

    Yes, but why constantly bring up Reagan? He was just another puppet emperor. As the late Howard Zinn pointed out years ago, policy swings ever rightward with every succeeding emperor. The Obama regime is well to the right of Reagan regime on economic policy, foreign policy etc. and outright criminality and abuse of power – and that says a lot. Bringing up bad ol’ R-brand Reagan as an excuse to the D brand of war criminal kleptocrat is counterproductive and distorts reality. It does however, indirectly support the D/R de-facto ONE party state. We love the status-quo. Hail Caesar! Hail the Empire!

    We have an alternative in our system: vote D and everything will be just peachy keen when Hillary becomes puppet emperor.

    The Washington Consensus rules no matter which puppet is in the WH.

    • Joe Tedesky on said:

      Jonny now you are taking us to where we got to go. I believe that on Nov 22 1963 there was a coup. You need not agree, but things sure have never been the same since then….just saying!

  9. Tony from IN on said:

    Got to love how Mr Parry masterfully explains in detail, the US government and mainstream medias “snake-Oil” of “might makes right” and “do as we say, not as we do”, foreign policy.