Catchwords and slogans have their day and pass into the limbo of forgotten verbiage, like "insurgency" and "counterinsurgency" in the early 1960s, which encouraged us to believe that without too much trouble we could countrol a situation in Vietnam which we did not begin to understand.
The current buzzword of this sort is "terrorism," though it has a much longer history. It may have originated in Czarist Russia where it was principally applied to assassinations of high officials, like Czar Alexander II just 100 years ago this year when he was about to promulgate a liberal constitution. Henry James, of all people, wrote a novel about terrorism at that time and Joseph Conrad two, a little later.
The trouble is to know just what terrorism means. One man's terrorism is another man's war of independence. It is often loosely thought of as the application of indiscriminate violence for political purposes, particularly the slaughter of innocent people not responsible for the policies against which the terrorists are acting.
Of course in this sense modern war, particularly aerial bombing, is the worst sort of terrorism. I remember when I was US Ambassador in Syria being called on by a group of most distinguished Syrian women who asked the US to intercede for the life of an Algerian girl who had blown up a number of French women and children in a cinema. When I protested her terroristic methods, one of the women replied that Hiroshima and Nagasaki seemed to her the greates examples of terrorism in history.
We often think of terrorism as the acts of relatively small groups -- Red Brigades, Baader-Meinhof gang, Basques, IRA -- but in fact it has been much more prevalent since World War II as the tactics of militarily outclassed and frustrated "freedom fighters" struggling either for national independence or some change in the domestic political system, whether toward communism or some more benevolent system. This has been the case with the Algerians, the PLO, the Israelis before 1948, and now Israelis in reaction against the PLO. It is true of most of the terrorism in Central America where, though there is no doubt some outside help, the main problems are long-standing, intolerable political and social conditions. The most paradoxical of all are those sparked and maintained by what is ironically called "religion," Lebanon and Northern Ireland for example.
It is highly unlikely that, as the US administration has claimed in its more exuberant moments, the Soviets are "masterminding" all or most of these various sorts of "terrorism" around the globe. No doubt they are giving support, where they think it will pay off, to "wars of national liberation," as they have been for many years. If this sort of war arises from genuine social or national causes, it will probably continue whatever the Soviets do; if it does not, it will eventually peter out leaving the Soviets high and dry -- unless they can hold on by brute military force as they are doing in Afghanistan.
As to individual acts of assassination, the Soviets have rarely found this a profitable exercise, except for some KGB executions of defectors abroad. Perhaps the Soviet leaders are a little uneasy that the idea of assassination might become too popular. Shades of Alexander II.
The United States, despite all its violence, has been extremely fortunate to have had so little that was political. Lincoln and McKinley were killed by political fanatics, but the assassinations of Garfield and Kennedy and the recent attempts on Ford and Reagan seem to have been inspired by private hang-ups. Our only terrorists are Puerto Rico and Croatioan nationalists and anti-Castro Cubans. FBI Director Webster recently said on "Meet the Press" that the bureau has no evidence that these are inspired by the Soviets.
The developed countries of Europe and Japan have on the whole been successful in containing internal terrorism, except where it is supported by large numbers of people, as in Northern Ireland and Spain. On the other hand, it has become a way of life in some of the developing countries because their economic and social problems are so great and their political institutions so fragile.
The US would make a serious geopolitical mistake to suppose that the Soviets have a significant hand in all or most of the varieties of "terrorism" alluded to above or, on this assumption, to oppose social change, even revolutionary change, wherever it appears on the grounds it must be "communist." Such a "strategy" would be likely to alienate much of the third world, to divert our strength and baffle our allies, and to lead us unnecessarily into conflicts around the globe.
The real, as distinct from the specious and spectacular, treatment to apply in this area is to assist, discreetly but effectively, the countries troubled by genuine terrorism, arising from deep-seated economic and social problems, to overcome them more rapidly.
Our record in this respect in recent years has been deteriorating steadily and now seems to be approaching rock-bottom. We have fallen from first to 15th among per capita aid donors, and most of what we do gives goes to only two countries. Egypt and Israel.
Finally, we need at last to strengthen considerably the peacemaking and peacekeeping capabilities of the United Nations, so that a more universal institution can relieve us and our allies of more of the burdens of coping with th e violence and terrorism which are certain to characterize much of our world in the remainder of the 20th century.