Subversion Old and New

April 24, 2014

The term “subversion” — seldom mentioned in policy circles since the Cold War — has re-entered the lexicon. Echoing that earlier period of conflict, Washington and Moscow are accusing each other of fomenting subversion. The U.S. State Department detects a hidden Russian hand behind the so-called “green men” reportedly responsible for seizing government sites in eastern Ukraine. Russian state radio claims that a “long-running covert subversion” in Ukraine is part of a broader U.S. effort involving the CIA, NATO, and the “military-industrial complex” to assert “hegemony and control” over Eastern Europe.

No one is using the term with any precision. Subversion is used to describe any clandestine or covert activities aimed at regime destabilization — including disinformation, the creation and manipulation of ethnic tensions, and support for illegal armed groups. During the Cold War, the concept of subversion was equally baggy and flexible. Neither the West nor the Soviet Union admitted to engaging in subversive activities as such. Like terrorism, subversion was and remains a normative term. Nevertheless, the superpowers and their allies saw subversion as a useful part of their national security repertoire.

Undermining hostile or unfriendly regimes through front groups, riots, strikes, and infiltration were all regular if not routine parts of statecraft. To cite just one example: In 1947, Major General Sir Stewart Menzies, chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), hatched a far-ranging plan of anti-Soviet subversion that included deception, “throwing ridicule” on Russian officials, hurling stink bombs during meetings of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and creating a “general nuisance” in Soviet-controlled territory.

Nor was subversion necessarily limited to states. Insurgent and terrorist groups like the Viet Cong/National Liberation Front, the Provisional Irish Republican Army, and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front in El Salvador used intimidation, propaganda, and economic and social control measures to physically and metaphorically separate target populations from incumbent regimes.

Over time, slightly different connotations of the term emerged in the United States and Britain. For Americans, the word was applied almost exclusively to the activities of Communist countries and their operatives, friends, and supporters around the world. Subversion was seen as integral to a global communist strategy to undermine the United States, its allies, and its friends in the developing world.

The British, while not rejecting this conception explicitly, developed a more specialized understanding of subversion. Colonial officials waged a number of counter-subversive campaigns in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, some of which were directed against purely nationalist groups and individuals. After decolonization, it was the British Isles themselves that seemed most vulnerable to subversion, at least to some observers.

Following her assent to power in 1979, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pressed the Security Service (MI5) to reinvigorate efforts against the so-called “enemy within”: Trotskyists, militant trade unionists (some of whom apparently did receive “Moscow gold” and other Soviet blandishments), and garden-variety Communists who allegedly posed a threat to British industry and parliamentary democracy.

Subversion — or more precisely, counter-subversion — was under political and cultural attack in the United States (and to a lesser degree in Britain) since the mid-1960s, as frosty superpower relations thawed and the Vietnam War called into question the premises of Cold War security policy. (See, for example, Dr. Strangelove, and the unhinged General Jack D. Ripper’s fulminations about international communist subversion and associated evils such as water fluoridation.)

After the death of legendary FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover in 1972, and subsequent Watergate-related investigations by Congress, the FBI retired from the counter-subversion business. In Britain, MI5 downgraded its subversive hunting mission, although it remains a vestigial task for the service. By the time the Cold War began to draw to a close in the late 1980s, the concept of subversion had grown quaint and irrelevant.

But today, extremist groups like Hizb ut-Tahir, and terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, continue to use the techniques of infiltration, dissimilation, and population control seen during the Cold War, albeit with contemporary refinements such as internet-based propaganda. And if the Obama administration, or Vladimir Putin, is to be believed, subversion remains a component of statecraft.

But an important question for policymakers remains: does the use of subversion actually help a state or group achieve its goals? Put another way, does subversion work? During the Cold War, Western officials generally assumed that it did. But for both the West and the Communist world, the record was decidedly mixed. Efforts to counter Soviet ideology and propaganda through CIA-backed front groups like the Congress for Cultural Freedom produced no appreciable results. The subversive actions against the government of Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran and the government of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán in Guatemala “succeeded in the narrow sense that these regimes were removed from power. But the negative political consequences — both in terms of the subsequent violence and instability in both countries, and the damage to America’s international standing when U.S. involvement was revealed — ultimately outweighed any tactical victories.

The communist world was hardly more successful. Subversion during the early years of the Cold War certainly paved the way for Soviet domination of eastern and central Europe. But Soviet subversive forays in Western Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Africa generally were unproductive, and Cuba’s attempts to export revolution in the hemisphere were dismal failures.  Perhaps Western-backed counter-subversion played a part in thwarting these efforts. Whatever the case, it would be helpful to revisit the subject of subversion in a systematic way, given the new official interest in the topic. Policymakers today need a clearer sense of how states and groups — in Ukraine and elsewhere — employ subversion and whether these activities actually work.


William Rosenau is a senior analyst at the CNA Corporation, a nonprofit research organization in Alexandria, Virginia. The views expressed here are his own.


Photo credit: Mirandiki