Covert Action Can Be Just

In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower appointed a panel to make recommendations regarding covert political action as an instrument of foreign policy. The panel, headed by General Jimmy Doolittle, included the following statement in its report:

It is now clear that we are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination by whatever means and at whatever cost. There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply. If the United States is to survive, long standing American concepts of “fair play” must be reconsidered. We must develop effective espionage and counterespionage services and must learn to subvert, sabotage and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated means than those used against us. It may become necessary that the American people be made acquainted with, understand and support this fundamentally repugnant philosophy.

Today, this conclusion of the Doolittle report appears exaggerated-even its authors were uncomfortable with the “repugnant philosophy” they deemed necessary–and fortunately America did not abandon its moral traditions, much less “acceptable norms of human conduct.” Nevertheless, coven political action did become an important tool of U.S. policy, and the threat of international communism was so compelling a rationale that most covert action operations needed no more specific justification. This objective was used to justify covert coups, assassination attempts, and other activities that in hindsight appear reprehensible. These actions–pursued under a crusading variant of Reulpolitik–seem to many today to be questionable in their objectives and disproportionate to the threat.

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