U.S. Needs a Dose of Glasnost


March 02, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris.-- Truth-telling has been breaking out in interesting places, most recently in Taiwan, where the government has just acknowledged responsibility for its attempt in 1947 to murder the native elite of the island. An official report just published even describes that massacre as worse than had been generally thought, estimating that as many as 28,000 Taiwanese were killed by the Nationalist Army of Chiang Kai-shek.

The Nationalist leadership and the remnants of the Nationalist (Kuomintang) army retreated to Taiwan when they were driven from the mainland in 1949, at the end of China's civil war, and they have ruled the island since. Their admission of the 1947 killings follows a series of measures of democratization during the past six years, and is expected to be followed by the presentation of excuses to the families concerned and payment of indemnities.

It makes a notable contrast to the resolute official silence that still reigns in Japan about Japan's wartime crimes against civilians and prisoners of war. The most the Japanese have yet done is to speak of ''unfortunate'' or ''regrettable'' events during the war, as if these had been natural catastrophes in which the Japanese were themselves victims.

One cannot say that all this began with Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost, since glasnost was itself inspired by the freedom of debate and openness of government in the democratic countries. Yet what Mr. Gorbachev and his associates did in the Soviet Union was of immense consequence because it provided a case, virtually without historical precedent, of a government's repudiating its own past, making known its own crimes, and attempting to make restitution. Where else had this ever been done? But it has been done in several places since.

It had an effect on the democracies themselves, where governments and institutions habitually try to guard their secrets and hide their wrongs. In democracies, the political and legal systems are devised to make this difficult. Thus the secrets usually come out, if not at the time -- as happened at Watergate in the United States -- then soon afterward, as with the Reagan administration's arms sales to Iran and illegal support for the contras, or the Greenpeace affair in France, or Germany's arms-sales scandals.

The government of Carlos Menem in Argentina has just made public its own records of refuge granted to Nazi officials and war criminals in the 1940s and 1950s. The Roman Catholic Church, some of whose officials assisted those Nazis by recommending them for Red Cross refugee certification, has yet to make an equivalent commitment to open the Vatican's archives, although records have been opened in a similar case in France.

It was recently found in France that the head of intelligence for the Vichy government's political police in the city of Lyon, accused of crimes against humanity, was protected and often hidden for more than 40 years by conservative elements in the Catholic Church. The cardinal-archbishop of Lyon then appointed a commission of professional historians to investigate and publish exactly what had happened and why, giving them full access to the church's archives. Their report has been issued and debated.

American intelligence services -- the CIA and the Army's Counter-Intelligence Corps -- were also implicated in providing refuge for Nazis who, although they had been accused of war crimes, had proved useful in setting up American intelligence operations against the Soviet Union. The full truth about this has never been officially published, although much about it is known.

The crucial distinction is between information spontaneously offered by governments or institutions about their own crimes or lies, their own pasts -- ''glasnost'' -- and the truths that have to be admitted after historians, journalists or the revelations of other governments have brought the facts to light.

The American record on this is not very good. Facts on controversial matters are extracted in Washington only with difficulty, although they nearly always come out in the end. Thus the relations of press with government have been deeply embittered since the 1960s, when press and public first discovered that their government had been lying to them about Vietnam, the American involvement in Cambodia and Laos, certain of the CIA's other activities, etc. Then came Watergate.

The executive branch of government has since Vietnam been obsessed with ''leaks'' and press manipulation. Political journalism, and campaign coverage in particular, has to a considerable degree become a matter of catching out officials and candidates in scandals, gaffes, contradictions. The situation marginally better this election year (there is a new press emphasis on issues and campaign positions), but the developments of the past 25 years in the U.S. have done no good to the democratic process and have become a positive disincentive to any serious American's running for public office.

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