War Powers, War Lies: Part 4: Willingly Deceived

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War Powers, War Lies: A Series

 Part 4: Willingly Deceived


 Published in the Maryland Daily Record April 29, 2005 

           Last time, we considered the dishonesty of President Lyndon Johnson in claiming that North Vietnam had attacked U.S. warships on August 4, 1964, and in denying that he would use as a declaration of war the Tonkin Gulf Resolution he sought, supposedly in consequence of the alleged attack.  Appalling though this was, LBJ was merely partaking in an unholy tradition of Presidential dishonesty about matters of war and peace.  It is a tradition with two sides, only one of which is the war lies the Presidents tell us.  The other side is the complementary lies we tell ourselves.  They work well together. 

           A few examples will illustrate the Presidential lies. 

           The start of the Mexican American War in 1846 was one.  President James K. Polk sent General Zachary Taylor and about a quarter of the U.S. Army to show the flag in Texas, then freshly annexed to the United States.  But not just anywhere in Texas: he dispatched Taylor specifically to the north bank of the Rio Grande.  Even granting the Texas annexation a legitimacy the Mexicans categorically denied, there was less legitimacy in Texan and hence U.S. claims to lands between the south bank of the Nueces and the north bank of the Rio Grande – exactly where Taylor’s men were when Mexican forces attacked them.  After word of the attack reached Washington, Polk requested and received a declaration of war, asserting that Mexico had shed American blood on American soil, without specifying where.  Historian General John S.D. Eisenhower has too charitably commented: “The kindest thing that can be said about Polk’s message is that he probably believed it himself.”  Polk repeated the vague assertion a number of times as the war ground on.  In December 1847 Congressman Abraham Lincoln rose in the House to demand that Polk identify the exact spot where the attack had taken place.  He repeated the challenge on two occasions in 1848.  Polk ignored him, and Lincoln’s own patriotism came under fire for having dared to question the President in wartime.  Having successfully used the distortion to stir up public opinion, Polk simply moved on.  His diary revealed that he had been planning to ask Congress for a declaration of war before he had ever heard of the attack anyway.  The truth mattered even less to Polk, perhaps, because after the War, the U.S. did indisputably extend to the Rio Grande.  Victors write the history books. 

           A century later, Franklin Roosevelt had led a recalcitrant nation both into and out of war with steps he did not acknowledge.  Before World War II, he had used sophistry to violate the 1937 Neutrality Act with the Lend Lease program, knowing full well it was likely to lead to war.  He lied to the public about Axis weapons, and promised during the 1940 election campaign that Americans would not be sent to fight in foreign wars while intending and eventually delivering the opposite. 

           One can reasonably argue that these lies going into World War II truly served a salutary purpose, given that World War II was a “right war” if there ever was one, not to mention inevitable, and these lies positioned us better for the war to come.  But Roosevelt’s lies on the way out were for far less admirable goals, and they wrought enormous mischief.  

           In February 1945, with the successful conclusion of the war in plain view, the leaders of the principal Allied powers, Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union, and Winston Churchill of Great Britain, met at the Crimean seaside resort of Yalta.  Roosevelt needed to induce the Soviets to join in the war against Japan, and wanted to persuade them to join the United Nations.  The Soviets were agreeable, but demanded and received a quid pro quo: Western acquiescence in Soviet domination of postwar Eastern Europe.  Roosevelt promised not to interfere with the Soviet fixing of the upcoming Polish elections, a fix that would have the result of turning Poland into a Soviet satellite nation.  Effectively, Roosevelt (along with Churchill) sold out Eastern Europe to achieve larger goals.  But that is not what he told the U.S. Congress on March 1, 1945, in a speech to a joint session.  Instead, he said that Stalin had signed on to the notion of a “strong” and “independent” Poland, and represented that there had not even been discussions of the Soviets entering the war with Japan.  A month later he died, leaving his successor, Harry Truman, and the American people, clueless as to what had really been agreed. 

           There were at least arguable “reasons of state” for the concessions Roosevelt made.  And there were apparent good military intelligence reasons for lying about the concessions Roosevelt had received in return.  But the consequences of this act of Presidential dishonesty were utterly poisonous, as Eric Alterman has recently shown.  He points out that when the Soviets collected on their half of the deal, the U.S. public and politicians viewed Soviet establishment of the Warsaw Pact as far more treacherous than it really was.  Instead of coming across as Moscow collecting its fair share of the war spoils and enhancing its security with tacit American assent, this looked to be the opening of a Cold War of Soviet aggression, which in fact and partly in consequence it became.  When U.S. leaders denounced the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, this was in turn perceived as double-crossing by the Soviets.  That is not to suggest that Roosevelt’s lies caused the Cold War; but it is arguable that some of the worst excesses could have been avoided.  If Roosevelt had said outright that he had let the Russians have Poland, and if he had told America the reasons why, he might have prevented the internecine U.S. bloodletting that followed during the McCarthy era.  He might have avoided driving the Soviets and Red Chinese into each other’s arms.  It might have been a kinder, gentler Cold War. 

           Similar lies covered up our extrication from war – or in this case near-war — again during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.  We now know that President John Kennedy did not secure the Russian withdrawal of the Cuban missiles merely by being tough and blockading Cuba.  In fact what had really happened was exactly what President Kennedy and his men were then and later so emphatic to deny.  Kennedy had made a secret deal with Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev under which we in exchange agreed to (and did) withdraw Jupiter missiles from Turkey.  This myth, that by standing tall in the saddle we had cowed the Communists, became part of the Kennedy legend – and part of what LBJ thought he had to live up to when, in early 1964, it sank in with him that America’s South Vietnamese venture was failing.  Johnson expressed more than once the feeling that in handling Vietnam he had to emulate Kennedy’s supposed toughness.  Kennedy had pretended to the world he had been willing to lead America to the brink of nuclear confrontation with Russia.  (“Pay any price, bear any burden.”) Johnson felt he was expected to do the same.  And if he ever forgot, there were both Kennedy loyalists (to whom Johnson would always appear an unworthy interloper) and Republican hawks who would and did remind Johnson publicly. 

           And on the other hand, if Johnson chose to lie, he knew that he could get away with it.  Presidents always get away with it.  The deceptions of President Polk about Mexico and President Johnson about Vietnam bear an uncanny resemblance to the well-known deceptions of President George W. Bush about Iraq.  Over the years the American public seems to have grown no less trustful. 

           Why is this?  I do not think it is simply that, as Bertrand Russell said, “Man is a credulous animal.”  Given our undeniable record of literally hundreds of deployments of military force from the Indian Wars to the present, we are obviously a war-like people.  We like to use military force and we like the things that military force can attain for us.  There is nothing necessarily wrong with that when we are using force to defend ourselves.  But oftentimes (in Mexico and Iraq for instance) we are the aggressor – a label we understandably would rather not acknowledge.  We want to feel good about ourselves, and in Presidential war lies we are never the aggressor. We would rather think of ourselves as being what Ronald Reagan (quoting John Winthrop)[1] called us: A City on a Hill,[2] meaning a place set apart from the rest of the world, distinguished by high purpose and lofty principles, with a God-given mission to set an example to other lands. 

           The reality, however, is different. 

           In fact the hill we sit on was occupied by brutal theft.  Only a tiny minority of our population is comprised of Native Americans, the only truly rightful inheritors of the continent.  The rest of us are here because the founders of our nation and generations of their forbears and descendants took advantage of disease, armed aggression, and broken treaties to wrest the nation and the continent from its original owners.  (If you need a refresher on the subject, visit the new National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, and let the 4th Floor docents remind you.) 

           In fact we are a nation whose economy was jump-started with slave labor.  We now profess much concern about human rights worldwide.  Yet our national fortune was first made in large part because we tolerated for hundreds of years systematic and blatant abuse of the rights of millions of Africans. 

           In fact we act as a Nation from a keen sense of our own best interest most of the time.  Our foreign policy is not driven by any consistent commitment to peace, justice or democracy.  If it were, then the histories of many lands would be far different.  Imagine El Salvador, Nicaragua, Argentina, Chile or Brazil, to choose some piquant examples, had we not trained torturers and disappearers, and financed the suppression of indigenous tribes, the too-cheap and too-fast exploitation of natural resources, and the corruption of politicians, to smooth the way of U.S. business.  If we had cared as much about simple human decency as we had claimed, then surely we would have come more quickly and effectively to the aid of the Bosnians and the Rwandans, who had the fatal misfortune of having little of commercial value to offer us.  We would have seen to it that the wealth our thirst for oil created in countries like Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and Indonesia or the wealth generated by our need for the minerals of South Africa were more equitably shared amongst the populace who lacked legal title, but who were the equitable owners of these common resources. 

           In fact, like the nations of the Old World we have often professed to despise, we act on the basis of Realpolitik and shape our principles to our ends.  Scorning Woodrow Wilson’s ideal of “open treaties, openly arrived at,” we do what Roosevelt did at Yalta, and Kennedy with the Cubans: make agreements that receive publicity only if and when it suits everyone’s end to publicize them.  And that is the best-case scenario.  Frequently racism and xenophobia supercede even self-interest.  Our proxy wars in Central and South America against indigenous populations (to be discussed later on) are good examples. 

           And in fact we follow leaders who lie.  Not only the worst of them, but the best of them, lie to us, like (to choose some examples I have already discussed in this series) Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Kennedy.  

           They lie successfully because they say what we want to hear.  We want the wars but not the guilt.  Even when we act like Lieutenant William Calley at the massacre of My Lai, we want to feel like John Wayne in The Green Berets.  Presidential war lies told by Presidential war liars make it possible.  We keep voting for liars to sugarcoat our wars, and we keep getting what we elect. 

           We are usually satisfied.  Yet there is the occasional buyer’s regret.  Next time, we shall see what happened when Congress experienced buyer’s regret after the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. 


[1]              John Winthrop’s City upon a Hill, 1630. 

[2]              First Conservative Political Action Conference, 1/15/74.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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