Enemies Lists, Then and Now

06/30/2015 11:30 am ET | Updated Jun 30, 2016

I've read a few official documents in my time -- minutes, memoranda, reports, briefings, you name it. They tend to be opaque and filled with acronyms, jargon, and government-speak. Often the soulless work of marginally talented bureaucrats, they can make for dreadful reading. Then, of course, there are the exceptions. "This memorandum addresses the matter of how we can maximize the fact of our incumbency in dealing with persons known to be active in their opposition to our Administration," begins one decades-old memo. A so-so start, to be sure, but wait for the next sentence: "Stated a bit more bluntly -- how we can use the available federal machinery to screw with our political enemies."

I told you: pure gold.

That August 16, 1971, memorandum, penned by President Richard Nixon's consigliere, John Dean, was titled "Dealing with our political enemies." It was the cover memo for Nixon's infamous "enemies list," the first of two sets of names that added up to a catalog of hundreds of perceived opponents, including everyone who was anyone, from Congressman John Conyers and journalist Daniel Schorr to actor Paul Newman and pantyhose pitchman (and football great) Joe Namath.

Outside the U.S., Nixon had no shortage of enemies, including those in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact satellites, and of course "Red" China. In 1972, Nixon's trip to Beijing to meet Mao Zedong, the leader of the former Middle Kingdom, set the stage for improved relations after decades of chill. America's wars in Southeast Asia would end soon after and less than two decades later that communist behemoth, the Soviet Union, would vanish into the mists of history. After apparently trouncing Iraq in 1991, Washington found foes of any sort, large or small, in short supply.

A decade later, the U.S. had managed to accumulate 26 groups on its prime enemies list, the State Department's inventory of "foreign terrorist organizations." Included were the Real Irish Republican Army, Spain's Basque Fatherland and Liberty (better known as ETA), and a set of other outfits that seemed to pose little threat to the planet's "sole superpower." There was, of course, one 1999 addition to the list that proved notable: a group known as "al-Qaida" whose leader was "determined to strike in [the] U.S.," according to an intelligence briefing given to President George W. Bush in August 2001. The administration, however, didn't seem all that concerned -- until, of course, the intel proved accurate a few weeks later.

Since 9/11, 38 groups were added to the State Department's terror rolls, 10 of them in the last two years. The world is, again, awash in American enemies, from new additions like Libya's Ansar al-Shari'a in Benghazi and Nigeria's Boko Haram to that not-yet-officially-added recent scourge (and source of apoplexy among those running for the presidency), the Islamic State. In a world that, from the point of view of official Washington, is only getting darker, Nixon-era enemies are also returning to the fray, the focus of TomDispatch regular Michael Klare's latest offering. As the 2016 election campaign ramps up, get ready to hear far more about the grave, even existential threats posed by two oldies but goodies: Russia and China. Which one wins top honors in the 2016 enemies list sweepstakes will depend, as Klare makes clear in "The Coming of Cold War 2.0," on who captures the White House. But with some version of Cold War 2.0 about to rear its ugly head, expect all of us to lose.