MSU Overseas: The Ugly Academic
The Lansing Star, April 1 - 14, 1976
"The following article on MSU's involvement in Vietnam is merely a case study of two critical failures in American education and intellectual life today. The first is the diversion of the university away from its function (and duties) of scholarship and teaching. The second has to do with the failure of the academic intellectual to serve as critic, conscience, ombudsman." -- Stanley K. Sheinbaum, former MSU professor
So begins a 1969 reprint of Ramparts magazine's now famous article on MSU's instrumental role in initiating and insuring the U.S.'s involvement in the Vietnam civil war. Vietnam is been such a glaring example of U.S. foreign policy that any U.S. involvement in the domestic affairs of another government gets the charge "the next Vietnam" or the rhetorical "Have we learned nothing from Vietnam?"
To the second question, one must answer, "very little, and for the most part, the wrong things." U.S.-Kissinger foreign policy is slicker now and ore devious. The next wars we fight will be by proxy, using mercenary or foreign armies to do the dirty work. And if there is a "next Vietnam" which there surely will be, MSU will be there too.
MSU currently maintains academic and technical assistance contracts with at least three of the most repressive and abusive governments on the planet today. They could easily rival the horrors of Ngo Dinh Diem's regime in South Vietnam in the late 50s and early 60s. The governments of the three countries -- Brazil, Iran and South Korea -- repeatedly have made Amnesty International's top-ten list in the number of political prisoners and the use of torture.
Amnesty International aids those imprisoned for beliefs who have not used or advocated violence. Its supporters range from William F. Buckley to the likes of Joan Baez.
The MSU-Vietnam story is perhaps too well known to warrant repeating [in detail] here; however, some of the more important points should be noted. Soon after Diem was installed in 1954 by the U.S. as interim premier (until elections could be held), he requested his good friend, MSU professor Wesley Fishel and MSU to come over and set up a "public and police administration program." Besides organizing the South Vietnamese equivalent of the FBI, training the police in riot control, and even helping Diem issue plastic laminated UD cards to every Vietnamese over the age of 21 (this program failed), the MSU Group (MSUG) armed the South Vietnamese police with guns, ammunition and tear gas. Diem, with technical and material assistance from Michigan State, turned the country into a police state.
CIA agents slipped into the country as MSUG personnel; some were even listed as faculty to avoid blatant violation of the Geneva accords. MSU Professor of Economics Milt Taylor, one time member of the MSUG in South Vietnam, claims that diem's dictatorship cinched the U.S. defeat there. His excesses literally forced the people of Vietnam to take up arms against the harsh regime.
Taylor, with another MSU professor, Adrian Jaffe, later blew the CIA cover and exposed the nature of Diem's regime in 1962 in two New Republic articles. Diem, extremely sensitive to adverse criticism, refused to renew the MSU contract. It wasn't even MSU's idea to pull out -- no such qualms on the university's part.
Taylor figures he cost the university $400,000 by exposing the Diem regime. He claims the university receives a 60% charge for "overhead" -- for facilities and bureaucracy. This 60% he calls "hard money... a nice juicy sort of income" for which the university is non-accountable to the state legislature. Rumors float around campus that the Center for International Programs was built with Vietnam project money.
Money is one of the more tangible reasons for such contracts. "They're not uninterested in making a buck," says Taylor. After 18 months abroad, income is tax-exempt. Personnel also receive travel expenses, housing benefits, often higher pay, and probable promotions upon return.
But Taylor sees overseas contracts motivated no so much by money, but a kind of warped idealism, which falls in line with U.S. foreign policy. MSU's foreign operations become merely another facet of American foreign policy.
Brazil and Iran frequently appear side by side in various articles. Both are countries developing at rapid rates due to exploitation of their vast natural wealth. They are also strategically important. Brazil overlooks the rest of South America and the South Atlantic; Iran guards the Persian Gulf., through which passes 90% of Japan's oil, 60% of Western Europe's oil, and an estimated 55% of the U.S.'s oil by 1980. The proximity of natural resources coupled with cheap labor and non-existent environmental laws make these countries an inviting site for factories. U.S. companies can take advantage of those countries Third World image to sell goods to countries who otherwise would not buy from the U.S. And both countries offer a quickly rising petty bourgeoisie to buy the goods that go along with the American Way of Life. Also, neither government represents the will of the populace. The Shah replaced the democratically elected Mossadeq government in 1953 with the aid of the CIA, and a military junta has ruled Brazil since 1964. Neither government has shown much regard for human rights. And lastly, MSU has important contracts with both governments.
The Brazilian Ministry of Education has contracted MSU to conduct a three-part program focusing on agriculture. The contract is MSU's second largest ever, grossing $7.6 million in funds loaned to Brazil by the U.S. Agency for International Development plus an almost equal amount from the Brazilian government.
The program seems innocent enough. MSU provides technical assistants and consultants to the Ministry of Education and six Brazilian universities scattered as far as Lansing is to San Francisco for a total of 90 man year to set up a graduate program in agriculture. The second part of the project calls for the administration of a participant program on the East Lansing campus for 152 Brazilians to study here. The third part of the program calls for a $400,000 administration, planning and upgrading of libraries at six Brazilian institutions, concentrating in the fields of agriculture and veterinary science.
Dr. John Hunter at the Latin American Studies center, who administers the Brazil Project, is curiously noncommittal when it comes to the moral implications of MSU's business dealings with a government which holds 12,000 political prisoners; which is responsible for over a thousand documented cases of torture, and gives silent approval to "death squads", bands of right-wing killers who have murdered over 1300 Brazilian dissidents. (Information from Amnesty International).
Hunter also found nothing wrong with giving technical assistance to police forces 'to make them more efficient' (as in the Vietnam Project).
While talking with Hunter he queried himself, "Is rapid growth possible without such excesses?" And he answered himself, "I don't know. It's oppressive [pause] perhaps." But there's "no way to how much is accurate."
This echoes the attitude of Edna Anderson, formerly with MSU's Art Department, who spent time with her husband Dale, with a previous Brazilian project. "I can't be so biased," she said, "as to say there's no exploitation by the rich, but that's human nature." She believes the government "is a beneficial one."
While there she had [no] personal experiences of political repression and genocide of the natives (to clear land for development -- see Lansing Star Vol. 8 No. 2) "It could be happening here and you wouldn't know it." (While the Brazilian government regularly censors the press.)
Anderson feels MSU is making a contribution to a developing country, and every contribution is a constructive thing for that country.
Herbert Jackson, professor of Religious Studies and chairman of MSU's International Projects Committee, in a letter which appeared in the January 29 State News, responding to a viewpoint by Milt Taylor and two other MSU professors questioning the morality of MSU's overseas activity, wrote: "Given the desperate conditions, socially and politically, of the masses of the word, the need to aid them in improving their lot is in fact greater than would be the case if people under a benevolent, enlightened, democratic form of government." He further wrote, "the International Projects Committee supports life-improving programs in foreign countries" and service in a foreign country by no means implies concurrence with its form of government or collusion with its political leaders." But Taylor argues "No matter what MSU does in a country set up like Brazil [or Iran], it can only help the rich and the rising middle class." MSU should not be there, he feels, because they are "repulsive regimes", MSU's focus is not on redistribution, but efficiency and growth. MSU can only help countries "in the context they want to be helped", reasons Taylor, and those countries are ripping off their people.
Taylor sees Brazil as the epitome of the rip-off country. Brazil sports a whopping 10% growth rate, yet no country has a bigger poverty problem. "If the World Bank lent money on the basis of how it was used on the poor," he says, "Brazil wouldn't get any."
The MSU contract, Hunter, claims, was made with the government of Brazil. One cannot expect the leaders to be so stupid as to support a contract which threatens their power, rather, any assistance given Brazil only further establishes the government's position and lends de facto support to their tactics and their goals.
In a locally published pamphlet, Michigan State: The University's Role (available at the Peace Education Center) the author's wrote:
"The University claims to undertake its international programs in a politically neutral manner, on the basis of academic and educational criteria, However, given the kinds of projects in which it is involved, it is impossible for the University to be politically neutral. Any program dealing with agricultural development, for example, no matter how technical =, must deal with questions of land ownership and tenure, of private versus collective ownership and cultivation, of capitalist intensive versus labor intensive development, of capitalist or socialis6 planning. These questions are politically explosive in the Third World, and no answer, whether implicit or explicit, can be neutral."
U.S. foreign policy has no desire to change the Brazilian government because it so conveniently fits U.S. needs. Brazil is in hock to the U.S. and to the international banks; also, its kind of growth (opening the rich interior to development, opening new markets for American goods, including arms and ammunition) supports the U.S. economy. The U.S. government has bestowed its blessings on the Brazilian regime (witness Kissinger's recent visit there), and, as in Vietnam, MSU has aligned itself with U.S. foreign policy by strengthening the position of Brazil's totalitarian government.
"A contractual arrangement has been established with the National Institute of Radio and Television (NIRT) an agency of the government of Iran. The purpose is to train, in the USA, Iranian staff members of NIRT in various aspects of television and electronics communication.. This program is under the direction of Professor Ali Issari, Associate Professor of TV and Radio, who also is directing a two-year project on the production of the Iran Film Series, which is designed for use in high schools and junior colleges in the USA to portray factually (apolitically) the history and culture of Iran." (International Projects Committee Annual Report by Prof. Herbert Jackson)
Radio and television -- the mass media -- are the fastest means of preparing Iranians for western civilization. The same movies showing the U.S. are shown in Iran, according to a member of the Iranian Students Association and portray not Iranian culture but western culture making Iranians comfortable with it. The viewer (or listener) is attracted to Western culture and the things it provides. This infection of Iran with Western culture erodes the revolutionary movement in Iran -- the only hope for changing the Shah's terrorist government. Instead of talking politics, workers talk about the movies.
The Shah is also putting public TV in the villages, advertising western culture, starting the peasants think in terms of luxury goods. The Shah uses the media to control the polyglot tribes and cultural groups of Iran, to destroy their native ways of life, to bring them under his fist.
"Iran is a police state much like the Soviet Union," wrote Frances Fitzgerald in a November, 1974 Harper's Magazine article. "Private estimates put the number of SAVAK (the Persian acronym for the secret police there) agents at 70,000 -- or approximately one for every 450 Iranians," though she adds, "SAVAK officials themselves say they have more paid informers than paid agents," swelling that number.
People just disappear in Iran. "There are 100,000 political prisoners and there have been 300 official executions in the last three years according to figures of Amnesty International. Le Monde, and other European newspapers, and the International Federation of Human Rights," reported the New York Times (Feb. 29, 1976).
The NYT article reported a meeting of opponents of the Shah to publicize "torture and repression that they say persist in Iran" (one of many nationwide meetings). The Iranian Students Association here at MSU held a similar meeting Feb. 28, at great risk to themselves since SAVAK agents also keep close tabs on Iranian students in the U.S.
Ivan Morris, chairman of the board of Amnesty International USA said, "Iran has the worst record of political repression in the world." The torture of one prisoner, Asgar Badizagan, was described in detail by two fellow prisoners who sneaked reports from the country, and were printed in the London Sunday Times, Jan. 19, 1975.
"He was slowly burned by means of an electric fire, while his hands and legs were tied to a bed. He was so badly burned in the lower lumbar areas that it reached some of the vertebral bones and he fell into a coma. He was untied and left with his wound s in a putrid state, so much that the stink of his infected flesh filled our cell and nobody would come near it. He was then transferred to prison hospital and underwent several operations, But he can no longer walk, only crawl on all fours."
The other prisoner adds, "He was taken to court and shot soon afterwards."
Of the more publicized incidents of political repression, one involved Vide Hadjebi Tabrizi, a sociologist at the University of Tehran, imprisoned without trial since 1972. The New York Times reported that she has allegedly been tortured so severely she has lost all sense of feeling in her hands and feet and ha developed meningitis. At the time of her arrest she was, according to a Swedish newspaper, investigating the "living conditions of Iran's peasant population."
Another case involves Iranian poet and critic Reza Bahreni, tortured and imprisoned for 102 days. He, like many of the Shah's victims, is not a Marxist, but merely stands in the way of the Shah's homogenization of Iran.
Iran is important strategically (and therefore important to keep the CIA-installed Shah in power) that the U.S. has sent none other than Richard Helms there to be the U.S. ambassador. Helms, a firmer CIA director, allegedly help mastermind Operation "Ohio" in Europe in the early 50s, which was responsible for the assassination of dozens, perhaps hundreds (according to WIN magazine) of suspected "subversives" without any formal hearings or trials. The "Ohio" operation served as blueprint for the CIA's operation "Phoenix" responsible for the killing of a least (admits the CIA) 20,000 suspected "subversives" during the Indochina War.
Will these scenes be in MSU's Iran Film Series? Jackson describes the Iran Film Series (for use in high schools and junior colleges in the U.S. as a "factual" history of Iran, which he simplistically calls "apolitical". One can be sure the NIRT, the Shah's propaganda arm, will tastefully avoid the messier areas of torture and other abuses of human beings. But a factual report demands examination of these events. And an "apolitical history" is a contradiction in terms.
MSU is arming the Shah with propaganda techniques equally as dangerous as the pistols and tear gas used to arm Diem. "It's impossible for MSU to help the people of Iran," says Milt Taylor, "because Iran is a dictatorship. MSU can only solidify and strengthen the repressive institute in power." The NIRT is only making the Shah's propaganda more effective in controlling people. This again neatly fits with U.S. foreign policy of having the Shah patrol the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and Indian Ocean region with his vast armory, purchased with funds from the sale of oil gushing out of the Iranian people's soil.
Taylor believes at least some minimal guidelines should be established to determine where MSU should place its resources. First, no contracts with any government which makes racism a public policy (such as Rhodesia and South Africa) and secondly, none with any government which tortures its prisoners.
MSU last summer did refuse a contract with Saudi Arabia because they refused to grant a visa to International Programs Dean Ralph Smuckler because he is a Jew. Professor Jackson writes in his report: "MSU this has taken an important moral stance, and has won national recognition for doing so." That seems almost petty next to the contracts MSU has accepted. In fact, the national recognition to be gained by canceling the Brazilian and Iranian projects would redound manifold to the University, not to mention the damage to the unwarranted prestige of those governments. Unfortunately, that kind of "moral stance" does not pay in dollars.
Iranian poet Bahreni stated that whoever aids the Shah's regime also takes part in the torture of Iranian intellectuals. Not to mention hundreds and thousands of other Iranians. The blood is on the hands of MSU. It is more than a failure of the MSU academic intellectual, it is a gross crime.
How disgusting to realize that an MSU education is subsidized by the blood of Brazilian and Iranian workers, peasants, natives, intellectuals, students, and on and on...
James I Davis
Addendum: Special thanks to friends from the Iranian Students Association for their valuable interest and energy.