(Shawn’s article appeared in the New York Review of Books, October 27, 2020; Photo:kcrw.com. )
I wonder if anyone but me remembers that during the years after the end of World War II, there were a lot of US Army jeeps on the streets of New York. I was a very little boy at the time, and I remember being lifted up to sit in them by friendly GIs. And do you remember those photographs of the American soldiers as they were being hugged and kissed by the thin, desperate-looking Europeans whose cities they’d liberated? Do you remember those warm, sunny American faces? Those sincere, open faces? Those boys looked like gods or angels who had swooped down from the sky on their jeeps to save the terrified world. Everything they’d actually done during the war, everything they’d seen—the hand-to-hand combat, the firebombing of cities, the piles of corpses—it was all swept away in the glow of victory.
And for the next twenty years, we were dazzled by the never-abating, mind-boggling cascade of prosperity and consumer magic lifting up the middle class. Political speeches overflowed with generosity and altruism. Were people said to be suffering somewhere in America? Were people suffering anywhere on earth? Our politicians won votes by promising to help them. Americans seemed addicted to the feeling that their country represented goodness, decency, and kindness in a world where evil had almost prevailed.
Simultaneously, on the very same days that our generous politicians made those altruistic speeches, they huddled for hours with scientific geniuses, working out plans for nuclear war. They would often declare that they hoped they would never be forced to make the terrible decision to carry out those plans. Still, day after day, they carefully decided which missiles to build, they chose the targets and tried to estimate the number of people who’d be killed by each strike. And also at the same time—though this was less well known then—they made some plans that actually were carried out in foreign countries, governments to be overthrown, leaders to be assassinated, dissidents and rebels to be quietly disappeared.
I was seventeen when John Kennedy was elected president, and I was thrilled by his speeches promising the total eradication of poverty on earth and peace between nations, self-government, and economic growth across the globe. But as the decades passed, and I entered my forties, I became more curious about what my government was doing in distant lands. I read books, I talked to people, I even traveled, and I was astounded by the atrocities I learned about—unspeakable massacres perpetrated in my name, and for my benefit, and paid for with the money I’d provided in taxes. I realized that people like Noam Chomsky had been writing for years about all of these things, but the American public had refused to listen—they seemed to be asleep. I was desperate, frantic, to help wake them up. That was the only way the horrors could be stopped.