"The following is a complete, unedited, unverified interview, portions of which were utilized in the Red Files PBS broadcast. Statements therein are the sole opinion of the interviewee, and do not reflect the views of PBS, DDE or Series and Web Site producer Abamedia, which are not Responsible for the interview content."


Interview with Alexander Haig
Secretary of State 1981-1982

Alexander Haig being interviewed for the filmInterviewer: General Haig, can you explain how important propaganda and counter-propaganda was in foreign policy during the Cold War?

General A. Haig: Well ,it carried -- dependant on the attitudes and the outlook of the governments concerned, especially in the West, I think the West in general was less adept. They're certainly less intensely concerned about propaganda. It was an important arm of the Soviet diplomacy however, very important.

Interviewer: The Soviets had a propaganda machine and had propaganda apparatus for a long time. How did America understand the value of psychological persuasion as well as the Soviets did?

General A. Haig: Well, some American and Western leaders did and some did not. I think that perhaps the classic propagandists of the -- in the second world war was Winston Churchill. He was extremely skilled and adept at it. But if you look at American presidents and their leadership during the Cold War, they carried -- in fact, many were confused about the banality of Marxist Leninism, and that confusion contributed to what I call a more spotty application of propaganda by the West. More often than not, Americans and Westerners overestimated the power and capability of the Soviet Union. I think Ronald Reagan was a very happy exception, because in the area of propaganda he was a past master. He was a product of media and theater, and he understood all those important vehicles in the psychological sense, and from the outset he took a very aggressive stance against the evils of Marxist Leninism.

Interviewer: You've said in your books that media was very important to the Reagan administration. Why was that, why was it not to others?

General A. Haig: Well, in the first place, he was what I call a product of the media; he was a darling of the media, and rightfully so. It was a well-earned reputation. He was an attractive public personality. He oozed this self-confidence of sense of purpose, and he was also a -- very much a movie star, on top of that. So, I think he knew it was an asset, and he used it to its utmost limit, and with considerable success. But it would be wrong, in an historic sense, to conclude that the Cold War's outcome was a product of propaganda, or public demeanor. It was not -- it was a product first and foremost of the internal contradictions of Marxist Leninism. Marxist Leninism in the Soviet model was doomed to failure from the day it was instigated in the Soviet Union in 1900--in the 1919. But I think it's important to remember this, or we'll get the impression, for example, that the -- standing tall in Grenada, or opposing Soviet Imperialism in Afghanistan, or Star Wars brought the Soviet Union to it's knees. That process was inevitable. These propaganda steps, and some of them were that, certainly Star Wars, and to a large degree, were catalysts. In the ultimate, er, failure of Marxist Leninism in the Soviet model.

Interviewer: Do you think that you would describe Reagan as a propagandist?

General A. Haig: No, I would not, because I think -- what you were seeing in Ronald Reagan was an expression of conviction. He always believed that--that we had to stand up to Soviet Imperialism in a far more effective way than we had on some occasions in Western history during the Cold War. And he came in with a very aggressive posture; as you know, I supported that posture and was part of it as his Secretary of State. And, I think, in those first two years, we set a tone and a direction in American foreign policy that he continued through the entire two terms of his presidency. And I think it was a catalyst and a major contributor to the speed with which the Soviet Union collapsed. Not to the fact of that collapse, that was inevitable. I spoke to it in the early 70's as a new NATO commander. I said that we are witnessing the disintegration of Marxist Leninism in the Soviet model and in our lifetime. If we stay together and stay strong and credible, we would be the beneficiaries of that collapse, and indeed we were, and it came more quickly than I would have anticipated. And I think Ronald Reagan's presidency and Margaret Thatcher's Prime Ministership were major contributors to that.

Interviewer: Do you think that propaganda within the Soviet Union actually contributed to its downfall in the sense that, you know, you can't keep saying one thing and doing another. You know that, in the end, people will stop listening?

General A. Haig: Well, I think in some respects, yes, because, if your propaganda is built on lies, instead of fundamental logic, in the long run it will collapse of its own weight. I think it, the Russian people, and the Soviet repressed peoples concluded, long before the fall of the Soviet Union, that their system was corrupt and was failing, and that they were being lied to by their own government.

Interviewer: Can we go back to Star Wars? Did you say that, in some ways, Star Wars was a bit of a propaganda coup? I mean, after all, it was an idea at the stage that it really frightened the Soviet Union.

General A. Haig: Well, the answer's yes and no. I think the advocates of Star Wars around President Reagan were genuinely of the conviction that a strategic defense system had to be devised. And that it was within the realm of reality to achieve that with sufficient expenditure of funds, and we were spending almost 4 billions of dollars a year for solutions which were really not achievable, in the final analysis. But that is not true -- to suggest that the advocates, and I was not one of them, but that the advocates did not believe that they were recommending sound solutions for the American expenditure of resources, and it wasn't simply a propaganda ploy. The facts are, however, that it created incredible nervousness in the Kremlin. And so, in that context and unconsciously -- it became a very important propaganda tool.

Interviewer: Because the Soviets took up their usual propaganda anti-American line, with--with Star Wars as well, didn't they?

General A. Haig: Yes, they did, but, as is often the case with a lot of dishonesty, comes from factual reality, too. And I think, you know, we've seen that in the recent debate over the expansion of NATO. And there was Great Britain's Winston Churchill who said to a group of youth one day, "Read history young man, read history, because only through history does one learn the secrets of statecraft." And too many of the modern-day leaders in the Western world have not read history. And, thank God, enough have, that we passed this NATO expansion recently.

Interviewer: Did do you think that Star Wars, though, was -- made a significant contribution in, at least, ending the arms race?

General A. Haig: No, not really. I think there was -- questions are yet to be answered. Clearly it would be very prudent and wise for the United States and the West to develop a strategic defence capabilities, both for rogue states – threats, and the reality that today, even post-Soviet Russia still maintains the largest inventory of nuclear weapons in the world. And they have the most capable systems for delivery, and they still exist in large numbers. So it's very naïve to suggest that the -- suddenly history has changed, that we're in a whole New World Order. And George Bush contributed to that somewhat with the myth of the New World Order -- same old dirty world we've always lived in. There are nations who believe in rule of law and peaceful change, and nations who believe in the rule of the bayonet. And I think it's very, very important for the West to keep its guard up and be able to deal with these in strategic defense systems that fit in that category.

Interviewer: Do you think that the value of information is changing? I mean, there's not a sort of surfeit of information--very hard for the public to tell what's true and what's not true.

General A. Haig: And very much so, and I think that one of the greatest changes, and that's what we should be describing as the post Cold War world ,is a world of change, not a new world order. It's the same dirty, old world order. But the world of change has been propelled in--in a considerable degree by the explosion of information sciences, real-time visual and audio expansion into every household in the world. And advanced societies, and in less advanced societies, one need only go to China or to Russia, and every home has a TV antennae on it. This has changed the whole character of statecraft. It means leaders must have instant answers, and it means leaders must be experienced and have exercised the trade that they are now engaged in--and, especially, their assistants. But they bring in political hacks, who've never read a book on history or have never experienced the tides of history. The high-risk thing which the same new, er, telegenic age has created: We are too often looking for matinee idols instead of substantive leaders.

Interviewer: General Haig, can we talk a bit about anti-Communism in the 50's in America? The Soviets saw it as propaganda; do you think it was?

General A. Haig: As I look back at the span of the Cold War in those early days, in the 50's, for example, there was a great deal of Soviet propaganda here in the United States, but it was clumsy, and it was anchored to a lot of ideological support in certain circles in America itself. For example, in our campuses, Marxist Leninism was a genuinely admired goal for achieving just egalitarianism in a corrupt Capitalist society. And our professors were teaching this regularly from the platform. It would be difficult for young American students in the 50's not to be infected by their enthusiasm for Marxist Leninism. And if one looks at the collapse of the Cold War, and the collapse of the Soviet Union today, one must look at it historically, as not a result of propaganda victories, for example, or excess militancy on the part of Ronald Reagan--the defense build up, but, rather, a failure of the Marxist Leninist system to meet the demands of modern society. And, if you look at today's so called victory of the Cold War, it's not a victory of a -- democratic values, it is more importantly a victory of free market, private property, and all of the things that have made the Western industrialized world the success story that it is today. The struggle for values continues and, I must say, in many respects, we in the West are not doing quite as well as we should. And we have some work to do.

Interviewer: But what about McCarthyism in the 50's? I mean the Soviets said that that was anti, you know, anti-Soviet propaganda. I mean, it was "un-American"--was the thing they often used to say.

General A. Haig: There were a number of controversies in the 50's, such as McCarthyism, that would suggest a reaction to the propaganda of Marxist Leninism in this country. And like all reactions, they harbour some extreme attitudes as well. And we live in a-- in what Emmanuel Kant or Hegel would have called "a great dialectic." And one excess begets another, and that's what happened in the 50's, in my view. But it wasn't to suggest that some of the counter actions to Marxist Leninist propaganda were not justified. We see now in--in getting into the Soviet archives, things that were going on that, at the time, were denied by the liberal communities of the West. And both vociferously denied, but they were actively penetrating our organs of government. And they were actively involved in policies designed to bring Western democracies to their knees. So you know there were some truth and some excesses. We never can endorse the excesses, but we must not overlook the truths.

Interviewer: Do you think that it antagonized the war of words at a time when both governments should have been trying to find a way for peaceful coexistence which came shortly after?

General A. Haig: Well, I want to believe that, as a result of my experience in government -- in uniform and out, that we must talk. We must communicate. I've made a point in my recent book that the Chinese entry into the Korean war in the 50's was a product far less of their strategic desires and objectives, and far more a direct product of our failure to communicate with Beijing. And we risk doing that again today in the West, because we, in the West, are not comfortable unless we have an enemy. And with the collapse of the Soviet Union, we were suddenly looking for an enemy in Beijing, despite the best intentions of the leaders of both countries not to have confrontation. So, we have to be very careful of these trends in a free society. And I wouldn't change that, but I would be alerted to it.

Interviewer: Can we go on to the Third World, how the developing world or the Third World is important as a battleground for an ideology?

General A. Haig: Well, it certainly was. And it was certainly a part of a long Marxist Leninist objective of a Communist world, an egalitarian utopia. And that may have been sincerely felt as an honest objective of Marxist Leninism, but the Third World was struggling.

During the conduct of the Cold War, it's my own personal view that the Soviets believed, from the outset, that they were no match for the West in direct military -- the West never understood that and was inhibited, in the extreme, in most of our negotiations with them. But, be that as it may, they then turned, of course, to the developing world as the battle-ground. And there was so much confusion in the West as to how to deal with that, and so much concern about the Soviets, that we frequently thought we could conduct hearts- and-minds struggles, if you will, in local environments and win a victory of democracy over totalitarianism, when the poor victims of the Soviet activity were gonna be dominated by the power that was willing to spend the most blood and money.

Interviewer: The Soviets poured a lot of propaganda into the developing world though, I mean, did America?

General A. Haig: I think the United States generally didn't do well in communicating with the developing world, in many of those areas of the developing world, especially in Africa, for example. The impression developed that the Imperialist Capitalist West didn't care about their inferior economic status. Whereas, the Soviet propaganda machine provided a panacea, if you will, a solution for their problem, and it had a tremendous appeal for down-trodden people.

Interviewer: Great, can we talk about the Bay of Pigs, do you think that that changed America's understanding of the importance of the--because, you know, the Soviets obviously leapt on it as a way to say look, there they are Imperialist aggressors. So, I mean, did it sort of change America's understanding or raise America's awareness of the importance of developing countries?

General A. Haig: Did you say the Bay of Pigs?

Interviewer: Yeah.

General A. Haig: Well, let's look, for example, at the areas in the developing world where we were less than successful, and certainly the Bay of Pigs, in the early Cuba history, is a very good example of that. Where the United States, a superpower, manipulated so-called freedom fighters, that trained and equipped them, and brought them to the scene of battle. We were still recoiling from doing what was necessary to win. And that was a result of timidity in the -- around the Kennedy administration, especially our United Nations ambassador who consistently demanded changes to the battle plan. It was, of course, ironic that everything was blamed on the military; it usually is. Their problem was they didn't stand up and say no, which they tried to do, but they tried to do it too politely. Now, having said all that, that did raise a sensitivity of the American people to this Third World battle, if you will. But I think the issue that really brought it to a head was the propaganda on both sides associated with the Cuban missile crisis. Because the American people were told, but for a few heroic moments by a democratic American president -- Jack Kennedy, the world was saved the catastrophe of a nuclear holocaust. That's nonsense. The Russians, at that time, knew they were outgunned twenty to one by the United States. Their missiles were all stone-age technology. They are not today, but they were then. And they would never have contemplated a nuclear exchange with the United States. Yet we believed that, and we told that to the American people. Then we all set about -- and I was an active part of that, working for the Kennedy/Johnson Administration, and in the Third World struggle in Latin America and Central America.

Interviewer: Do we go on to Vietnam? What do you think about Soviet propaganda, I mean, this was another platform for them. They went out and depicted America as, again, Imperialist aggressors. What do you think of that, bearing in mind their own involvement?

General A. Haig: You know, it's very clear, as one looks back on history again of the Cold War that, following the crisis in Cuba, following the Khrushchev -- beating down of Jack Kennedy in Vienna, that President Kennedy believed that we had to join the battle for the Third World and the next crisis that developed in that regards was Vietnam.

Interviewer: [The Soviets]…used Vietnam as a platform to say no Imperialist aggressors?

General A. Haig: Well, I think in the evolution of the Cold War, as the developing world became the battle-field, so to speak, between East and West, and the most dramatic example of that would be Vietnam. And that conflict in which we Americans were told it was a struggle for hearts and minds -- struggle for social justice, in a very localized sense, but to the Soviet propagandist it was, of course a battle-field in the Cold War. And they were the logisticians, and the supply base, and the catachist for Hanoi, although they didn't totally control Hanoi. So, they conducted it as a major battle with the free world. The free world tried to conduct it as a localized situation, that we could control those events. And of course we couldn't, and we didn't.

Interviewer: Do you think it changed in America, it sort of -- people lost faith there in this fight against Communism, this thing they'd been hearing about for the last two or three decades?

General A. Haig: Well, you know, if you look back at the experience of our failures in Vietnam, which were largely not a result of a -- not conducting the battle properly, but more importantly the failure of the American people to continue to support a conflict in which we were not succeeding by conscious policy decision. And so that, at the end of that conflict, the American people, despite a Paris peace accord, were unwilling, or at least the American legislature as spokesman for the American people, ended all bombing and military action in South East Asia. That was a green light to Hanoi to go ahead and take over the South, violating their peace agreement. Secondly, we refused to continue to support Saigon -- but the levels of supply that we had guaranteed they would receive. And that again was legislative action taken during the height of Watergate. And all of these irresponsible acts by the American legislature left the impression here, among the American people, that our involvements abroad were avenues to difficulties and troubles. And the, so called, Vietnam Syndrome developed, in which the likes of Cap Weinberger, our Secretary of Defence, could say that the American forces will never be used again, unless there's an overwhelming demand by the American people. And they give the troops a ticker-tape parade down Broadway on their way to the battle. And that the guarantees, before the commitment of those troops are -- that we will win, are assured and in hand. That's no way to run a railroad! And I hope and pray that we don't do that; we certainly didn't do it in the Gulf war. And we certainly hadn't done it in Bosnia. But these are the attitudes that come out of misjudgements of leadership and statecraft. "To every action there's a reaction," as I say, and the American people reacted with the Vietnam Syndrome. I don't think that's the majority of the American people. I think the new generations in America, the America's youth, no longer care about Vietnam. They don't want to hear anymore about it. They're sick of it. They want to worry about the future and their futures and the futures of their children. And, thank God, that's so we have a way of absolving ourselves of these reactions to failure, and that's good. Because societies rejuvenate themselves.

Interviewer: Do you think that if the public information had been handled slightly differently over the Vietnam War, that support, public support, might have been maintained for longer?

General A. Haig: That's a difficult, difficult question when one looks at the public information and the failures in Vietnam. I don't think public information can ever be a substitute for good policy. And, as you recall, many blamed the press for the American loss in Vietnam. I don't blame the press, the press had at least enough sense to know that we were conducting that conflict improperly. I would take exception with the press's ability to know why we were doing it improperly, and they generally drew the wrong conclusions, but having said that, one can not rely on public information alone. And it must be reinforced by sound policy, which can be explained to the people, and in which the people can have confidence. And so, I would be very careful to think that the public information could be a substitute for statecraft.

Interviewer: What about (sound fails) both internationally and in the Soviet Union?

General A. Haig: If one looks back on the declining days of the Marxist Leninist system in the Soviet Union, one would have to consider Afghanistan as a very important benchmark. First, the motivation for going in, I think, was a reflection of the subjective assessment of failure in the Kremlin. They, for example, felt that the threat of fundamentalism could sweep through the CIS today, or the Eastern extremes of the then Soviet Union. And so they felt they had to stand up and fight, even though they didn't derive the lessons that they should have derived from the American failures in Vietnam. It was a more difficult issue, because our failures involved misreading the role of the Soviet Union and standing up to the Soviet Union in Vietnam in a broader sense than we did. This situation, for Moscow, was a decision to try to hold back the tides of history in the -- with respect to fundamentalism. And, of course, they failed. They were drained. And that combined with the already inherent contradictions in the system also served to expedite the collapse. And Ronald Reagan's support for the freedom fighters, using Pakistan as our ally. And we seem to have forgotten that they were our ally at that time, as I look at our treatment of their -- Pakistan today is a disgrace. It's a disgrace. But having said that, I think Ronald Reagan aggravated an already bad judgement, a misjudgement on the part of Moscow.

Interviewer: Do you think, you know Afghanistan a good example of; you can't keep saying one thing and doing another. You know in that -- I think, particularly internal, that that was what had tired out the Soviet people, that yet again they were saying the same old things and doing something totally different.

General A. Haig: I think, as one looks at the failure of Marxist Leninism and the Soviet model, one has to conclude that, in the long run, lies and misinformation will snap back against reality. And, I think, among the Russian people and the Soviet peoples, that they reached a point of saturation with the lies of the Central Government. I think, as one looks at Mr. Gorbachev as a figure of history, he is today a -- I saw him after his failed election -- events working at Moscow two years ago. And I said, "You know, if you had been running in the United States or London, you would have been elected." As it was -- he didn't get any votes in among his own people, because they viewed him as the fellow that brought the temple down. Now, he didn't mean to bring the temple down. We in the West had drawn that conclusion. What he wanted to do was preserve Marxist Leninism by bringing in some reforms and greater honesty in the sense of your interest in information. In that sense, we all made a great debt of gratitude, but not because he wanted to change Marxist Leninism. He wanted to preserve it. What we really owe him a debt of gratitude for is the fact that he didn't go to war to preserve the Eastern territories of Europe, those that have now been added to NATO.

Interviewer: Can I ask you just a general question? Do you think that propaganda is a dirty word?

General A. Haig: Yes and no. If propaganda is put to work in behalf of the overall right -- freedom, democracy, respect and dignity for the individual, why then it is a disingenuous tool for the better good. If, however, propaganda is used as it was in Nazi Germany and in Soviet Russia, as a tool to overthrow the right, then it is a very dirty word, and it should be dealt with as just that.

One looks at the word propaganda and the tendency is to view it as something evil. I'd say yes and no. If propaganda, is labouring or applied in behalf of a good cause, which is far more important than the information flows are concerned in propaganda, then I would say it does not necessarily become an evil. On the other hand, if it is put to a totalitarian use, a use which is designed to deprive humanity of their individual rights and liberties, then it is an evil. And because it is more adeptly used by totalitarian states, whether it be Nazi Germany or Marxist Soviet Union, it tends to be viewed as some kind of an evil today.

Interviewer: Why do you think it's more adeptly used by totalitarian systems?

General A. Haig: Because they care less about the truth. Totalitarian systems, of course, have an ability to manipulate untruths. The more truthful the government, the more honest the government, the more difficult it is for such a government to conduct, what I call, classic propaganda.

Interviewer: So America's government doesn't ever lie with propaganda?

General A. Haig: I would say American governments fit that mould rather well. We're less than adept at handling state-run propaganda, because we leak like a sieve, because the truth is generally more evident than it is not evident, although one knows that power mechanisms can distort the truth very successfully and frequently do in America today. And he who has the power writes the contemporary history, and too often, we have to rely on the work of scholars years later to dig out the truth. But, in general, a free and open democratic society finds it more difficult to deal in propaganda than the truth.

Interviewer: How important do you think image is in defining the role of superpower in the world, for it's own people, and to the outside world?

General A. Haig: Well, I think this is really a reflection of statecraft and the ability of national leaders to create the image and the reality of integrity and goodwill and adherence to democratic values. That is, of course, a large measure, a product of the most important power that a president enjoys. And, if anything, in my experience of serving senev or eight presidents, I'm more impressed by the limits on their power than I am by the extent of that power. But the most important extension of that power is what Teddy Roosevelt used to call the "Bully Pulpit." That's the ability and the requirement for a national leader to get on today's television regularly with his people and explain why he is pursuing this policy or that, and to let it stand the test of logical analysis among the people. And presidents who do that, generally, are more effective in having their way and leading. Those who fail to do it develop controversy and confusion.

Interviewer: Do you think that the Soviet Union, I mean, this is an odd question really, I'll just see what you think. Do you think the Soviet Union, through its enormous propaganda machine deprived its people of their history, in a way?

General A. Haig: If one looks at a government built on lies, like the former Soviet Union, but one would have to conclude that the victims of their leadership, their own people, were, of course, deprived of the more important and universal -- of their nationhood. We all know the Russian people are wonderful people, and with great talents, and great courage, and with a, perhaps, too high a level of pain -- their ability to absorb pain is very high. But, I think, we deprive those people through propaganda and lies, of their own realization of their own merits.

Interviewer: Do you think, propaganda is going to become a more important part of foreign policy in the world in the future, I mean, seeing as we're living in this information age?

General A. Haig: I would suggest that, because we're living in a real time age, where the view of actual facts occurring on the ground overwhelm the dialogue accompanying those facts, that propaganda is becoming less important, and truthful exposition as an accompaniment to visual fact become far more critical. Because you can't fool people that are watching something very different to -- one would think back to Tianamen Square, where the images that were brought to the world were very different than the words that were emerging from the government leaders of China. This doesn't mean that those images were accurate either, because most of us viewed that incident as a repression of a freedom movement among students. Wasn't that at all! It was an economic uprising, by the people in Beijing against the evils of reform, which were inflation, nepotism, corruption. These were the true issues at stake at Tianamen. Of course we were never told that by our leaders. It was too easy to portray it as some kind of totalitarian repression of freedom. It wasn't that.

Interviewer: Do you think that the level of propaganda has a direct correlation to war? I mean, there's a substance of propaganda and a success of propaganda in the modern world -- mean that there's going to be more room for negotiation, that people will have to negotiate more, because there's more truth?

General A. Haig: I think, as one looks at the new world, this world of the -- that's witnessing the explosion of information sciences, that more communication is inevitable--has always been desirable. It means that propaganda will probably have a less significant role. Historically, propaganda could stir up good and evil. We saw it here in our early history, and the jingoist movements in the Caribbean in which there was a high emotional level stirred up among the American people to get into Havana. We see it throughout the totalitarian world, whether it was Nazi Germany or Soviet Union. So, the fact that truth should be the product of the explosion of information sciences, a greater acceptance of truth would suggest to me that propaganda is gonna decline. As we look to the future. It doesn't mean that bad people won't continue to try to use it; that's the nature of statecraft as well. (laughs)

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