Immigrants as a Weapon: Global Nationalism and American Power

I’m launching a new project that looks at how America weaponizes nationalism and immigrant communities.

These people had a mission, which was to defeat the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, a very admirable mission, one that was clearly in our national interest. The trouble was that they went out and did it on their own with no weighing of consequences, with no sense of what harm they might be doing to other interests, to our moral fiber.

Representative Barney Frank on America’s support for European far-right immigrants, 60 Minutes, 1982

In the schizoid turbulence of our Donald Trump Era, America’s media and political class has been trying to get a handle on where this upsurge of racism and alt-right radicalization is coming from. What’s the deal with all these nativist mass shootings? Why are European rightwing movements on the rise? How come fascists are suddenly marching in major American cities? Why is it all happening right now? 

Trump is constantly blamed. Even more often, the threat of a malign foreign influence is dangled in our faces. Racism, white nationalism, nativism — these things are supposed to be alien to western liberal democracies, right? So they must have been forced on us from abroad. Naturally, Russia is a prime suspect. As the supposed source of just about everything that ails western democracies, Russia must be the hive where all this rightwing bile and corruption originates. We’re under siege! At least that’s the message you get from countless articles, TV broadcasts, op-eds, and thinktank reports — including a widely cited New York Times expose from just the other month that pins the blame on the global “rise of far-right nationalism” almost entirely on Russia and Vladimir Putin. It’s as if racism and nativism didn’t exist in the west, not until Putin’s Russia came along.

But while people obsess with finding an external source for our racist and nativist movements, I’m launching a new project that investigates America’s own relationship to the global right.

Most people probably don’t know that over the past 70 years America has done more to promote nationalism and far-right ideologies around the world than any other country on earth. I say this without exaggeration. No one else even comes close.

Weaponizing nationalist ideas abroad while empowering nationalist communities here at home — this has been a major plank of United States foreign policy going back to the very end of World War II.

It was first unleashed against the Soviet Bloc as a way to destabilize and foment insurgency and unrest among the region’s diverse, multiethnic population. But this strategy has outlived the Soviet Union and continues in all sorts of different forms today — deployed to meddle and subvert state institutions from Eastern Europe to Central Asia to Russia to China to Iran and beyond. A giant soft power apparatus has been built up over the years to pursue this goal. It’s become such an integrated part of America’s imperial management strategy that few even notice it’s there.

I know because my family and I were inadvertently swept up and used by it.

My family in our finest clothes on a daytrip to Rome from our refugee camp in Ostia. 1990.

I’m a Soviet political refugee. My family — my brother, mom, dad, and I — left Leningrad in 1989 when I was eight years old. 

We took off in a hurry with a bit of cash and one-way tickets to Warsaw, where my mom had to sell her mother’s jewelry so we could buy connecting tickets to Vienna. We spent the better part of the year in refugee camps — first in Austria and then in Italy, where we lived in a grimy trailer park by the name of “Castel Fusano” in the town of Ostia, just outside of Rome.

Castel Fusano had been rented by an American-Jewish organization from what I’m pretty sure was a minor Italian aristocratic family and hastily converted into housing for a few hundred refugees like us who were waiting to get cleared by American immigration officials. The place was packed with shanty, box-like trailers for the refugees. And at the center stood a small medieval castle that was still occupied by the aristocratic family that owned it. It was a strange scene. My brother and I made pocket change by washing car windows at a busy intersection. While we shuffled around in our cheap, worn-out clothes and I played with discarded toys I found in the street, the lady of Castel Fusano would walk out in her fur coat, high heels, and elegant dress and speed away in her big black Audi.

The medieval glory of Castel Fusano.

It was tough in the camps, particularly for my parents. They were unsure of where we’d end up, or even if America was going to take us in. We were stateless and totally powerless — dependent on weekly handouts from American Jewish organizations and the mercy of America’s opaque immigration bureaucracy. It was doubly brutal for my mother. On top of the uncertainty and the stress of uprooting your life with two young boys, she was suffering from kidney stones. The condition was in an advanced state and had gotten worse after doctors in Leningrad hospital had botched an operation. She was in pain all the time, and in dire need of medical attention. But I can’t recall her complaining a single time. I still can’t believe that she was able to do that.

My parents thought the risk was worth it. All their lives they had been made to feel their Jewish “otherness” in countless different ways, both big and small. They had been kept out of good universities, denied good jobs, and insulted. And they were sick of the crumbling Soviet system and worn down by the poverty. They wanted a better life for themselves, and for me and my brother. They took a huge change — a blind leap into the unknown. But in the end, they bet right. We ended up in San Francisco. My parents worked incredibly hard and built a new life for our family. Thanks to them, everything turned out well for both my brother and I.

But the story of our immigration is bigger than us, and this larger context helps shine a light on how the United States has been able to use immigrant groups — and their ethnic, national, and religious identities — as a geopolitical weapon.

We left the Soviet Union as part of a larger wave of Jewish immigration that took place in the late 1980s — a mass migration that was backed up by vast resources from private Jewish-American organizations, but which could never have happened without the aggressive economic and diplomatic pressure leveraged by the United States.

For a good chunk of my life, I had a very naive and idealistic notion of how and why it happened. I thought it was all about human rights and humanitarianism. I thought that Americans, and especially American Jews, had learned about the discrimination Jews were facing in the Soviet Union, and decided they had to do something to help us out. Driven by this noble purpose, they kicked off a furious effort. They lobbied, fundraised, protested, and did everything they could to get the government to intervene and to help pull us out. Only later, as an adult and a journalist, did I begin to fill in the details.

Many American Jews got duped into believing that the Soviet Union was as bad for Jews as Nazi Germany. From a 1973 protest in Washington, D.C. (Source: National Museum of American Jewish History)

It’s true, humanitarianism did play a big part. Americans — and especially American Jews — genuinely wanted to “save” us and organized a powerful political machine to do it. But their desire to help did not exist in a vacuum. It was part of a larger matrix of Cold War propaganda, disinformation, geopolitical jockeying, and covert subversion — elements without which the campaign to “liberate” Soviet Jews would never have gotten off the ground, let alone received the full support of America’s foreign policy apparatus.

The question is: Why?

Why did the American government care so much about us? Why did politicians in Washington DC — people who had no problem bankrolling death squads in Central America and then hunting down and deporting refugees who fled from that violence — suddenly start caring deeply about the plight of a faraway population? Why did Jews suddenly become the “it” victims — a bipartisan political project supported by the might of the American empire?

The simple answer: Soviet Jews were seen as a means to an end. We were seen as a weapon.

Former CIA chief and then-Vice President George Bush sure looks exited! It’s because he truly cares!

The US government’s push to liberate Soviet Jews is not normally seen as an attempt to leverage and weaponize nationalist identity against the Soviet Union — but that is precisely what it was.

In the 1960s and 70s, a Jewish nationalist and cultural movement began to take off organically in the Soviet Union. It was highly illegal and started out in secrecy. People went to jail for it and had their lives destroyed. But it kept growing. Combined with USSR’s systemic antisemitism, repression of Jewish culture and language, and a crackdown on activists who wanted to emigrate to Israel, this cultural and nationalist awaking began to congeal into a small but committed anti-communist and anti-Soviet movement — with its own underground samizdats, leaders, and organizations.

Israel was the first to offer covert support for the movement in the hopes of using Soviet Jewish immigration as an untapped demographic weapon against what its leaders saw as the Palestinian population threat.

But in America people had much grander plans for it.

As the movement grew in the Soviet Union and received massive support of the American-Jewish community, an increasingly powerful neoconservative foreign policy element saw it as an opportunity. Here was a ready-made humanitarian cause with a powerful built-in domestic support base that could be leveraged to first derail Richard Nixon’s efforts at detente and then to ratchet up America’s economic and military pressure against the USSR, with the ultimate goal of bringing the Red Menace down once and for all.

So began a full-spectrum attempt — which included economic sanctions, diplomatic maneuvering, and psychological warfare ops — to turn Jewish national identity and Zionism into a geopolitical weapon. The program first got going under President Jimmy Carter, but really came into its own under Ronald Reagan.

It was incredibly subversive and successful, puncturing the Soviet Union’s restrictive controls on immigration and helping further discredit the Soviet project.

Obviously most Soviet Jews didn’t pay much attention to the geopolitical dimension of the support that we were getting from America. But their lack of knowledge didn’t change the fact that as far as America’s foreign policy blob was concerned, Soviet Jews were of no real importance, not outside of Cold War politics. My fate, the fate of my family, and the fate of hundreds of thousands of Jews like us…well, we only mattered because we were useful in the fight against the Soviet Union.

Congress even wanted to give Soviet Jews our very own radio station.

I had been aware of the geopolitical aspects of our immigration to the United States for years. I had also reported on the far-right in Eastern Europe since my earliest days as a journalist. But I only started to link the two of them together after Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan overthrow.

Back then, I watched in real-time how effectively Ukraine’s powerful nationalist movement was leveraged to subvert and undermine the country’s weak oligarch-dominated state institutions, and to drive a wedge between Ukraine and Russia. I knew that these nationalist and fascist-friendly groups had for years enjoyed support from the American government and adjacent NGOs — part of a strategy that sought to use Ukrainian nationalism to destabilize Ukraine’s historically close relationship with Russia. And as I continued to report on this conflict and its aftermath, a bigger picture began to emerge. I realized that the program to weaponize Ukraine’s nationalist elements was part of a much larger initiative with a very long history — an initiative that went beyond Ukraine and involved all sorts of nationalities and immigrant groups from the Soviet Union and other communist countries that America saw as a threat.

This covert plan to utilize immigrants and nationalist movements against communism was officially launched by President Truman in 1948. The scheme was cooked up by the leading lights of American foreign policy — people like George Kennan, Allan Dulles, Frank Wisner, and Richard Helms. And it was run by the CIA, in partnership with the State Department and US Army Intelligence. Under programs masterminded by these men, thousands of Nazi collaborators and fascist-friendly immigrants streamed into Northern America.

They came from Ukraine, Hungary, Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania — you name it. Some were given military training and used for black ops. Others were put to work running intelligence networks and psychological warfare projects, including CIA propaganda stations like Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe. The CIA bankrolled all sorts of front groups in these communities. They published books, magazines, and served as cultural hubs, and engaged in a sustained effort to whitewash their history of Nazi collaboration and mass murder and to rebrand themselves into democratic activists fighting communist totalitarianism. And it worked. The idea behind supporting these groups was simple: use their nationalist, ethnic, sectarian, and religious identity as an anti-communist propaganda weapon — a kind of ideological and cultural crowbar.

America’s focus on Soviet Jews came way later — decades after these larger covert programs had been established. But the more I looked at it, the more I began to see the US government’s efforts to “free” Soviet Jews were just one microscopic part of this much larger foreign policy strategy.

It was disorienting and downright weird to realize that your happy American immigration story was just a tiny part of a cynical strategy of imperial power projection: a bureaucratic world in which a project to save Soviet Jews could comfortably exist side-by-side with projects that protected and utilized Nazi collaborators and fascist immigrants in America — people who had a hand in slaughtering your relatives. But that’s the reality of being an immigrant whose fate accidentally happened to intersect with America’s imperial interests.

Before he went out to save Soviet Jews, Bush first paid his respects to a Ukrainian Nazi collaborator who did his best to exterminate said Jews. Gosh. Running an empire is complicated! (Source: Moss Robeson)

Looking at it now, almost three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it’s clear that America’s policy of weaponizing nationalist and immigrant movements has left a nasty stain wherever it had been put to use.

In the late 1980s, these immigrants — their ideologies, their resources, their organizations, and their American support — started to flow back into their home countries. In the ideological vacuum of post-communism, their reworked ethno-nationalist mythologies flourished. From Latvia to Hungary to Estonia to Croatia — the ideas of nationalist immigrant movements that had been backed and kept warm by America’s security apparatus during the Cold War hold huge sway over their societies today.

You can see the effects of it very clearly in Ukraine, where fascism and ultra-nationalism have become the most powerful and potent political movements in the country today and which serves as an inspiration and training ground for far-right movements from all over the world.

In short: America has played a huge role in the rise of the European far-right.

The policy of weaponizing nationalism was initially cooked up to fight the Soviet Union and allied states. Today, that Soviet world is long gone. But the programs still remain. They live on in all sorts of different forms — deployed in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Russia, Ukraine, the Caucuses, Central Asia, and beyond. They continue to exert a huge influence, and yet they are almost completely ignored by mainstream journalists and reporters.

So I’m starting a new project that will fill this void.

I’m calling it Immigrants as a Weapon.

The project will look at the history of these programs, how they were used in the past, how they are used today, and the effect they have on geopolitics. It will also explore the intersection between immigrant communities and American foreign policy, and the ways that immigrant, ethnic, national, and religious identity can be promoted and weaponized (or actively ignored and suppressed — say, as is the case with the Shia of Saudi Arabia or Bahrain) in the service of American imperial interests.

The last time anyone really paid attention to the history of programs that target the Soviet Bloc was in the 1980s, when a number of investigative books, articles, and television programs first brought the existence of these highly classified schemes to light. But that was long ago — before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since then, a lot of new material has emerged — including declassified CIA archives and a growing body of really amazing academic research. Even more important is that today we can go beyond simply establishing the historical existence of these programs and can actually trace the way that they’re shaping and influencing politics today.

Immigrants as a Weapon will be a mixture of original reporting, archival research, and interviews — it will include subscriber-only and public posts published here on yasha.substack.com and delivered to your inbox. I’ll aim to publish between two to four times a month, depending on the material.

I need your support to do this, so subscribe and help out if you can!

— Yasha Levine