Wars Are Not Launched In Defense

Wars Are Not Launched In Defense: Chapter 2 Of “War Is A Lie” By David Swanson


Creating war propaganda is the world’s second oldest profession, and its oldest line is “they started it.” Wars have been fought for millennia in defense against aggressors and in defense of the way of life of various states. Athenian historian Thucydides’ record of Athenian general Pericles’ oration at the mass funeral of a year’s worth of war dead is still widely praised by proponents of war. Pericles tells the assembled mourners that Athens has the greatest fighters because they are motivated to defend their superior and more democratic way of life, and that to die in its defense is the best fate anyone could hope for. Pericles is describing Athenians fighting in other states for imperial gain, and yet he depicts that fighting as the defense of something more valuable than the peoples of those other states could even comprehend — the very same something that President George W. Bush would much later say drove terrorists to attack the United States: freedom.

“They hate our freedoms, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other,” Bush said on September 20, 2001, hitting a theme he would return to again and again.

Captain Paul K. Chappell in his book The End of War writes that people who have freedom and prosperity can be easier to persuade to support wars, because they have more to lose.  I don’t know whether that’s true or how to test it, but it is predominantly those with the least to lose within our society who are sent to fight our wars. In any case, talk of fighting wars “in defense” often refers to defense of our standard of living and way of life, a point that rhetorically helps to blur the question of whether we are fighting against or as an aggressor.

In response to the pro-war argument that we must defend our standard of living by protecting oil supplies, a common statement on posters at antiwar marches in 2002 and 2003 was “How did our oil get under their sand?” To some Americans “securing” oil reserves was a “defensive” action. Others had been convinced the war had nothing to do with oil whatsoever.

Defensive wars can be seen as defending peace. Wars are launched and waged in the name of peace, while no one has yet promoted peace for the sake of war. A war in the name of peace can please proponents of both war and peace, and can justify war in the eyes of those who think it requires justification. “For the preponderating majority in any community,” wrote Harold Lasswell nearly a century ago, “the business of beating the enemy in the name of security and peace suffices. This is the great war aim, and in single-hearted devotion to its achievement they find that ‘peacefulness of being at war.’“

While all wars are described as defensive in some way by all parties involved, it is only by fighting a war in actual self-defense that a war can be made legal. Under the U.N. Charter, unless the Security Council has agreed to a special authorization, only those fighting back against an attack are fighting war legally. In the United States the Department of War was renamed the Department of Defense in 1948, appropriately enough the same year in which George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four. Since then, Americans have dutifully referred to anything their military or most other militaries do as “defense.” Peace advocates who want to slash three quarters of the military’s budget, which they believe is either immoral aggression or pure waste, publish papers calling for reduced spending on “defense.” They’ve lost that struggle before opening their mouths. The very last thing people will part with is “defense.”

But if what the Pentagon does is primarily defensive, Americans require a sort of defending unlike any previously seen or currently sought by any other people. Nobody else has divided the globe, plus outerspace and cyberspace, into zones and created a military command to control each one. Nobody else has several hundred, perhaps over a thousand, military bases spread around the earth in other people’s countries. Almost nobody else has any bases in other people’s countries. Most countries do not have nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. The U.S. military does. Americans spend more money on our military than any other nation, amounting to about 45 percent of the whole world’s military expenditures. The top 15 nations account for 83 percent of the world’s military spending, and the United States spends more than numbers 2 through 15 combined.  We spend 72 times what Iran and North Korea spend combined.

Our “Defense Department,” under its old and new names, has taken military actions abroad, large and small, some 250 times, not counting covert actions or the installation of permanent bases. For only 31 years, or 14 percent, of U.S. history have there been no U.S. troops engaged in any significant actions abroad. Acting in defense, to be sure, the United States has attacked, invaded, policed, overthrown, or occupied 62 other nations.  John Quigley’s excellent 1992 book The Ruses for War analyzes 25 of the United States’ most significant military actions following World War II, concluding that each was promoted with lies.

U.S. troops have been attacked while stationed abroad, but there has never been an attack on the United States, at least not since 1815. When the Japanese attacked U.S. ships at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was not a U.S. state, but rather an imperial territory, made such by our overthrow of the queen on behalf of sugar plantation owners. When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in 2001, they were committing a most serious crime, but they were not launching a war. In the lead-up to the War of 1812, the British and Americans exchanged attacks along the Canadian border and in the open seas. Native Americans also exchanged attacks with U.S. settlers, although who was invading whom is a question we’ve never wanted to face.

What we have seen from the United States and every other war-making state are wars in the name of defense that use massive aggression to respond to minor injuries or insults, that use massive aggression for the sake of revenge, that follow successful provocations of aggression by the enemy, that follow merely the pretense that there has been aggression from the other side, and that ostensibly defend allies or imperial possessions or other nations treated as puzzle pieces in a global game in which allegiances are imagined to fall like dominoes. There have even been wars of humanitarian aggression. In the end, most of these wars are wars of aggression — plain and simple.


An instance of transforming skirmishes, maritime offenses, and trade disagreements into a full-blown, utterly useless and destructive war is the now-forgotten War of 1812, the main accomplishment of which, other than death and misery, seems to have been getting Washington, D.C., burned. Honest charges could be laid against the British. And, unlike many U.S. wars, this one was authorized by, and in fact promoted primarily by, the Congress, as opposed to the president. But it was the United States, not Britain, that declared war, and one goal of many war supporters was not especially defensive — the conquest of Canada! Congressman Samuel Taggart (F., Mass.), in protest of a closed-door debate, published a speech in the Alexandria Gazette on June 24, 1812, in which he remarked:

“The conquest of Canada has been represented to be so easy as to be little more than a party of pleasure. We have, it has been said, nothing to do but to march an army into the country and display the standard of the United States, and the Canadians will immediately flock to it and place themselves under our protection. They have been represented as ripe for revolt, panting for emancipation from a tyrannical Government, and longing to enjoy the sweets of liberty under the fostering hand of the United States.”

Taggart went on to present reasons why such a result was by no means to be expected, and of course he was right. But being right is of little value when war fever takes hold. Vice President Dick Cheney, on March 16, 2003, made a similar claim about Iraqis, despite himself having pointed out its error on television nine years earlier when he had explained why the United States had not invaded Baghdad during the Gulf War. (Cheney, at that time, may have left some factors unstated, such as the real fear back then of chemical or biological weapons, as compared with the pretense of that fear in 2003.) Cheney said of his coming second attack on Iraq:

“Now, I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.”

A year earlier, Ken Adelman, former arms control director for President Ronald Reagan said “liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk.” This expectation, whether a pretense or sincere and truly stupid, didn’t work out in Iraq or two centuries ago in Canada. The Soviets went into Afghanistan in 1979 with the same stupid expectation of being welcomed as friends,  and the United States repeated the same mistake there beginning in 2001. Of course, such expectations would never work out for a foreign army in the United States either, no matter how admirable the people invading us might be or how miserable they might find us.

What if Canada and Iraq had indeed welcomed U.S. occupations? Would that have produced anything to outweigh the horror of the wars? Norman Thomas, author of War: No Glory, No Profit, No Need, speculated as follows:

“[S]uppose the United States in the War of 1812 had succeeded in its very blundering attempt to conquer all or part of Canada. Unquestionably we should have school histories to teach us how fortunate was the result of that war for the people of Ontario and how valuable a lesson it finally taught the British about the need for enlightened rule! Yet, to-day the Canadians who remain within the British Empire would say they have more real liberty than their neighbors to the south of the border!”

A great many wars, including numerous U.S. wars against the native peoples of North America, were wars of escalation. Just as the Iraqis — or, anyway, some people from the Middle East with funny sounding names — had killed 3,000 people in the United States, making the slaughter of a million Iraqis a defensive measure, the American Indians had always killed some number of settlers, against which actions a war could be understood as retaliation. But such wars are glaringly wars of choice, because numerous minor incidents identical to those that provoke wars are allowed to pass without wars.

Through decades of Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union allowed minor incidents, such as the shooting down of spy planes, to be handled with tools other than serious war. When the Soviet Union shot down a U-2 spy plane in 1960, relations with the United States were seriously damaged, but no war was launched. The Soviet Union traded the pilot they’d shot down for one of their own spies in an exchange that was far from unusual. And a U.S. radar operator for the top-secret U-2, a man who had defected to the Soviet Union six months earlier and reportedly told the Russians everything he knew, was welcomed back by the United States government and never prosecuted. On the contrary, the government loaned him money and later issued him a new passport overnight. His name was Lee Harvey Oswald.

Identical incidents would have served as excuses for war in other circumstances, namely any circumstances in which government leaders wanted a war. In fact, on January 31, 2003, President George W. Bush proposed to British Prime Minister Tony Blair that painting U-2 aircraft with United Nations colors, flying them low over Iraq, and getting them shot at, could provide an excuse for war.  Meanwhile, while publicly threatening war on Iraq over its fictional “weapons of mass destruction,” the United States ignored an interesting development: the actual acquisition of nuclear weapons by North Korea. Wars don’t go where the offenses are; the offenses are found or concocted to fit the desired wars. If the United States and the Soviet Union can avoid war because they don’t want to destroy the world, then all nations can avoid all wars by choosing not to destroy pieces of the world.


Often one of the initial excuses for military action is to defend Americans in a foreign country who have supposedly been put at risk by recent events. This excuse was used, along with the usual variety of other excuses, by the United States when invading the Dominican Republic in 1965, Grenada in 1983, and Panama in 1989, in examples that have been written about by John Quigley and by Norman Solomon in his book War Made Easy. In the case of the Dominican Republic, U.S. citizens who wanted to leave (1,856 of them) had been evacuated prior to the military action. Neighborhoods in Santo Domingo where Americans lived were free of violence and the military was not needed in order to evacuate anyone. All the major Dominican factions had agreed to help evacuate any foreigners who wanted to leave.

In the case of Grenada (an invasion that the United States banned the U.S. media from covering) there were supposedly U.S. medical students to rescue. But U.S. State Department official James Budeit, two days before the invasion, learned that the students were not in danger. When about 100 to 150 students decided they wanted to leave, their reason was fear of the U.S. attack. The parents of 500 of the students sent President Reagan a telegram asking him not to attack, letting him know their children were safe and free to leave Grenada if they chose to do so.

In the case of Panama, a real incident could be pointed to, one of a sort that has been found anywhere foreign armies have ever occupied someone else’s country. Some drunk Panamanian soldiers had beaten up a U.S. navy officer and threatened his wife. While George H. W. Bush claimed that this and other new developments prompted the war, the war plans had actually begun months prior to the incident.


A curious variation on the justification of defense is the justification of revenge. There can be an implication in cries of “they attacked us first” that they will do so again if we don’t attack them. But often the emotional punch is in the cry for revenge, while the possibility of future attacks is far from certain. In fact, launching a war guarantees counter-attacks, against troops if not territory, and launching a war against a nation in response to the actions of terrorists can serve as recruitment advertising for more terrorists. Launching such a war also constitutes the supreme crime of aggression, motives of revenge notwithstanding. Revenge is a primitive emotion, not a legal defense for war.

The murderers who flew airplanes into buildings on September 11, 2001, died in the process. There was no way to launch a war against them, and they represented no nation whose territory (as it has been commonly if falsely believed since World War II) could be freely and legally bombed in the course of a war. Possible co-conspirators in the crimes of September 11th who were among the living should have been sought out through all national, foreign, and international channels, and prosecuted in open and legitimate courts — as bin Laden and others were indicted in absentia in Spain. They still should be. Claims that the terrorists were themselves “retaliating” defensively against U.S. actions should also have been investigated. If the stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia and U.S. military aid to Israel were destabilizing the Middle East and endangering innocent people, those and similar policies should have been reviewed to determine whether any advantages outweighed the damage being done. Most U.S. troops were pulled out of Saudi Arabia two years later, but by then many more had been sent into Afghanistan and Iraq.

The president withdrawing those troops in 2005, George W. Bush, was the son of the president who had, in 1990, sent them in on the basis of the lie that Iraq was about to attack Saudi Arabia. The vice president in 2003, Dick Cheney, had been the Secretary of “Defense” in 1990, when he had been assigned the task of persuading the Saudis to allow the U.S. troop presence despite their not believing the lie.

There was little reason to believe that launching a war on Afghanistan would lead to the capture of suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, and, as we have seen, that was clearly not the top priority for the U.S. government, which rejected an offer to put him on trial. Instead, the war itself was the priority. And the war was certain to be counter-productive in terms of preventing terrorism. David Wildman and Phyllis Bennis provide the background:

“Previous U.S. decisions to respond militarily to terrorist attacks have all failed for the same reasons. One, they have killed, injured, or rendered even more desperate already-impoverished innocents. Two, they haven’t worked to stop terrorism. In 1986 Ronald Reagan ordered the bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi to punish Libyan leader Muammar Ghadafi for an explosion in a discotheque in Germany that had killed two GIs. Ghadafi survived, but several dozen Libyan civilians, including Ghadafi’s three-year-old daughter, were killed.

“Just a couple of years later came the Lockerbie disaster, for which Libya would take responsibility. In 1999, in response to the attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, U.S. bombers attacked Osama bin Laden’s training camps in Afghanistan and an allegedly bin Laden-linked pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan. It turned out the Sudanese factory had no connection to bin Laden, but the U.S. attack had destroyed the only producer of vital vaccines for children growing up in the profound scarcity of central Africa. And the attack on the camps in the Afghan mountains clearly did not prevent the attacks of September 11, 2001.”

The “Global War on Terror” that was launched in late 2001 with the War on Afghanistan and continued with the War on Iraq followed the same pattern. By 2007, we could document a shocking sevenfold increase in fatal jihadist attacks around the world, meaning hundreds of additional terrorist attacks and thousands of additional dead civilians in predictable if criminal response to the latest “defensive” wars by the United States, wars that had produced nothing of value to weigh against that harm.  The U.S. State Department responded to the dangerous escalation in worldwide terrorism by discontinuing its annual report on terrorism.

Two more years later, President Barack Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan, with the understanding that al Qaeda was not present in Afghanistan; that the most hated group likely to claim any share of power in Afghanistan, the Taliban, was not closely allied with al Qaeda; and that al Qaeda was otherwise occupied launching terrorist attacks in other countries. The war needed to press forward, nonetheless, because . . . well, because . . . um, actually nobody was really sure why. On July 14, 2010, the president’s representative to Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Holbrooke seemed fresh out of justifications. Senator Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) told the Los Angeles Times during the hearing,

“A lot of folks on both sides of the aisle think this effort is adrift. A lot of folks you’d consider the strongest hawks in the country are scratching their heads in concern.”

Corker complained that after listening for 90 minutes to Holbrooke he had, “no earthly idea what our objectives are on the civilian front. So far, this has been an incredible waste of time.” The possibility that the United States was under attack and fighting this distant pointless war in self-defense was not even imaginable as a plausible explanation, so the topic was never discussed by anyone other than the occasional radio host throwing out the mindless claim that “we’ve gotta fight ‘em there so we don’t hafta fight ‘em here.” The closest Holbrooke or the White House came to a justification for keeping the war going or escalating it was always that if the Taliban forces won they would bring in al Qaeda, and if al Qaeda were in Afghanistan that would endanger the United States. But numerous experts, including Holbrooke, at other times admitted there was no evidence for either claim. The Taliban was no longer on good terms with al Qaeda, and al Qaeda could plot anything it wanted to plot in any number of other countries.

Two months earlier, on May 13, 2010, the following exchange had taken place at a Pentagon press conference with General Stanley McChrystal who was then running the war in Afghanistan:

“REPORTER: [I]n Marja there are reports — credible reports — of intimidation and even beheading of local people who work with your forces. Is that your intelligence? And if so, does it worry you?

GEN. MCCHRYSTAL: Yeah. It absolutely is things that we see. But it’s absolutely predictable.”

Read that again.

If you’re in somebody else’s country, and the locals who help you happen, as a matter of course, to get their heads sliced off, it might be time to reconsider what you’re doing, or at least to come up with some justification for it, no matter how fantastic.


Another type of “defensive” war is one that follows a successful provocation of aggression from the desired enemy. This method was used to begin, and repeatedly to escalate, the Vietnam War, as recorded in the Pentagon Papers.

Setting aside until chapter four the question of whether the United States should have entered World War II, in either Europe or the Pacific or both, the fact is that our country was unlikely to enter unless attacked. In 1928 the U.S. Senate had voted 85 to 1 to ratify the Kellogg-Briand Pact, a treaty that bound — and still binds — our nation and many others never again to engage in war.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s fervent hope for years was that Japan would attack the United States. This would permit the United States (not legally, but politically) to fully enter the war in Europe, as its president wanted to do, as opposed to merely providing weaponry, as it had been doing. On April 28, 1941, Churchill wrote a secret directive to his war cabinet:

“It may be taken as almost certain that the entry of Japan into the war would be followed by the immediate entry of the United States on our side.”

On May 11, 1941, Robert Menzies, the prime minister of Australia, met with Roosevelt and found him “a little jealous” of Churchill’s place in the center of the war. While Roosevelt’s cabinet all wanted the United States to enter the war, Menzies found that Roosevelt,

“. . . trained under Woodrow Wilson in the last war, waits for an incident, which would in one blow get the USA into war and get R. out of his foolish election pledges that ‘I will keep you out of war.’“

On August 18, 1941, Churchill met with his cabinet at 10 Downing Street. The meeting had some similarity to the July 23, 2002, meeting at the same address, the minutes of which became known as the Downing Street Minutes. Both meetings revealed secret U.S. intentions to go to war. In the 1941 meeting, Churchill told his cabinet, according to the minutes: “The President had said he would wage war but not declare it.” In addition, “Everything was to be done to force an incident.”

Japan was certainly not averse to attacking others and had been busy creating an Asian empire. And the United States and Japan were certainly not living in harmonious friendship. But what could bring the Japanese to attack?

When President Franklin Roosevelt visited Pearl Harbor on July 28, 1934, seven years before the Japanese attack, the Japanese military expressed apprehension. General Kunishiga Tanaka wrote in the Japan Advertiser, objecting to the build-up of the American fleet and the creation of additional bases in Alaska and the Aleutian Islands:

“Such insolent behavior makes us most suspicious. It makes us think a major disturbance is purposely being encouraged in the Pacific. This is greatly regretted.”

Whether it was actually regretted or not is a separate question from whether this was a typical and predictable response to military expansionism, even when done in the name of “defense.” The great unembedded (as we would today call him) journalist George Seldes was suspicious as well. In October 1934 he wrote in Harper’s Magazine: “It is an axiom that nations do not arm for war but for a war.” Seldes asked an official at the Navy League:

“Do you accept the naval axiom that you prepare to fight a specific navy?”

The man replied “Yes.”

“Do you contemplate a fight with the British navy?”

“Absolutely, no.”

“Do you contemplate war with Japan?”


In 1935 the most decorated U.S. Marine in history at the time, Brigadier General Smedley D. Butler, published to enormous success a short book called War Is a Racket. He saw perfectly well what was coming and warned the nation:

“At each session of Congress the question of further naval appropriations comes up. The swivel-chair admirals . . . don’t shout that ‘We need lots of battleships to war on this nation or that nation.’ Oh, no. First of all, they let it be known that America is menaced by a great naval power. Almost any day, these admirals will tell you, the great fleet of this supposed enemy will strike suddenly and annihilate our 125,000,000 people. Just like that. Then they begin to cry for a larger navy. For what? To fight the enemy? Oh my, no. Oh, no. For defense purposes only. Then, incidentally, they announce maneuvers in the Pacific. For defense. Uh, huh.

“The Pacific is a great big ocean. We have a tremendous coastline in the Pacific. Will the maneuvers be off the coast, two or three hundred miles? Oh, no. The maneuvers will be two thousand, yes, perhaps even thirty-five hundred miles, off the coast.

“The Japanese, a proud people, of course will be pleased beyond expression to see the United States fleet so close to Nippon’s shores. Even as pleased as would be the residents of California were they to dimly discern, through the morning mist, the Japanese fleet playing at war games off Los Angeles.”

In March 1935, Roosevelt bestowed Wake Island on the U.S. Navy and gave Pan Am Airways a permit to build runways on Wake Island, Midway Island, and Guam. Japanese military commanders announced that they were disturbed and viewed these runways as a threat. So did peace activists in the United States. By the next month, Roosevelt had planned war games and maneuvers near the Aleutian Islands and Midway Island. By the following month, peace activists were marching in New York advocating friendship with Japan. Norman Thomas wrote in 1935:

“The Man from Mars who saw how men suffered in the last war and how frantically they are preparing for the next war, which they know will be worse, would come to the conclusion that he was looking at the denizens of a lunatic asylum.”

The U.S. Navy spent the next few years working up plans for war with Japan, the March 8, 1939, version of which described “an offensive war of long duration” that would destroy the military and disrupt the economic life of Japan. In January 1941, eleven months before the attack, the Japan Advertiser expressed its outrage over Pearl Harbor in an editorial, and the U.S. ambassador to Japan wrote in his diary:

“There is a lot of talk around town to the effect that the Japanese, in case of a break with the United States, are planning to go all out in a surprise mass attack on Pearl Harbor. Of course I informed my government.”

On February 5, 1941, Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner wrote to Secretary of War Henry Stimson to warn of the possibility of a surprise attack at Pearl Harbor.

As early as 1932 the United States had been talking with China about providing airplanes, pilots, and training for its war with Japan. In November 1940, Roosevelt loaned China one hundred million dollars for war with Japan, and after consulting with the British, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau made plans to send the Chinese bombers with U.S. crews to use in bombing Tokyo and other Japanese cities. On December 21, 1940, two weeks shy of a year before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, China’s Minister of Finance T.V. Soong and Colonel Claire Chennault, a retired U.S. Army flier who was working for the Chinese and had been urging them to use American pilots to bomb Tokyo since at least 1937, met in Henry Morgenthau’s dining room to plan the firebombing of Japan. Morgenthau said he could get men released from duty in the U.S. Army Air Corps if the Chinese could pay them $1,000 per month. Soong agreed.

On May 24, 1941, the New York Times reported on U.S. training of the Chinese air force, and the provision of “numerous fighting and bombing planes” to China by the United States. “Bombing of Japanese Cities is Expected” read the subheadline. By July, the Joint Army-Navy Board had approved a plan called JB 355 to firebomb Japan. A front corporation would buy American planes to be flown by American volunteers trained by Chennault and paid by another front group. Roosevelt approved, and his China expert Lauchlin Currie, in the words of Nicholson Baker, “wired Madame Chaing Kai-Shek and Claire Chennault a letter that fairly begged for interception by Japanese spies.” Whether or not that was the entire point, this was the letter:

“I am very happy to be able to report today the President directed that sixty-six bombers be made available to China this year with twenty-four to be delivered immediately. He also approved a Chinese pilot training program here. Details through normal channels. Warm regards.”

Our ambassador had said “in case of a break with the United States” the Japanese would bomb Pearl Harbor. I wonder if this qualified!

The 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG) of the Chinese Air Force, also known as the Flying Tigers, moved ahead with recruitment and training immediately and first saw combat on December 20, 1941, twelve days (local time) after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

On May 31, 1941, at the Keep America Out of War Congress, William Henry Chamberlin gave a dire warning: “A total economic boycott of Japan, the stoppage of oil shipments for instance, would push Japan into the arms of the Axis. Economic war would be a prelude to naval and military war.” The worst thing about peace advocates is how many times they turn out to be right.

On July 24, 1941, President Roosevelt remarked,

“If we cut the oil off, [the Japanese] probably would have gone down to the Dutch East Indies a year ago, and you would have had a war. It was very essential from our own selfish point of view of defense to prevent a war from starting in the South Pacific. So our foreign policy was trying to stop a war from breaking out there.”

Reporters noticed that Roosevelt said “was” rather than “is.” The next day, Roosevelt issued an executive order freezing Japanese assets. The United States and Britain cut off oil and scrap metal to Japan. Radhabinod Pal, an Indian jurist who served on the war crimes tribunal after the war, called the embargoes a “clear and potent threat to Japan’s very existence,” and concluded the United States had provoked Japan.

On August 7th, four months before the attack, the Japan Times Advertiser wrote:

“First there was the creation of a superbase at Singapore, heavily reinforced by British and Empire troops. From this hub a great wheel was built up and linked with American bases to form a great ring sweeping in a great area southwards and westwards from the Philippines through Malaya and Burma, with the link broken only in the Thailand peninsula. Now it is proposed to include the narrows in the encirclement, which proceeds to Rangoon.”

By September the Japanese press was outraged that the United States had begun shipping oil right past Japan to reach Russia. Japan, its newspapers said, was dying a slow death from “economic war.”

What might the United States have been hoping to gain by shipping oil past a nation in desperate need of it?

In late October, U.S. spy Edgar Mower was doing work for Colonel William Donovan who spied for Roosevelt. Mower spoke with a man in Manila named Ernest Johnson, a member of the Maritime Commission, who said he expected “The Japs will take Manila before I can get out.” When Mower expressed surprise, Johnson replied “Didn’t you know the Jap fleet has moved eastward, presumably to attack our fleet at Pearl Harbor?”

On November 3, 1941, our ambassador tried again to get something through his government’s thick skull, sending a lengthy telegram to the State Department warning that the economic sanctions might force Japan to commit “national hara-kiri.” He wrote: “An armed conflict with the United States may come with dangerous and dramatic suddenness.”

Why do I keep recalling the headline of the memo given to President George W. Bush prior to the September 11, 2001, attacks? “Bin Laden Determined To Strike in U.S.”

Apparently nobody in Washington wanted to hear it in 1941 either. On November 15th, Army Chief of Staff George Marshall briefed the media on something we do not remember as “the Marshall Plan.” In fact we don’t remember it at all. “We are preparing an offensive war against Japan,” Marshall said, asking the journalists to keep it a secret, which as far as I know they dutifully did.

Ten days later Secretary of War Henry Stimson wrote in his diary that he’d met in the Oval Office with Marshall, President Roosevelt, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, Admiral Harold Stark, and Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Roosevelt had told them the Japanese were likely to attack soon, possibly next Monday. That would have been December 1st, six days before the attack actually came. “The question,” Stimson wrote, “was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves. It was a difficult proposition.”

Was it? One obvious answer was to keep the whole fleet in Pearl Harbor and keep the sailors stationed there in the dark while fretting about them from comfortable offices in Washington, D.C. In fact, that was the solution our suit-and-tied heroes went with.

The day after the attack, Congress voted for war. Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin (R., Mont.), the first woman ever elected to Congress, and who had voted against World War I, stood alone in opposing World War II (just as Congresswoman Barbara Lee [D., Calif.] would stand alone against attacking Afghanistan 60 years later). One year after the vote, on December 8, 1942, Rankin put extended remarks into the Congressional Record explaining her opposition. She cited the work of a British propagandist who had argued in 1938 for using Japan to bring the United States into the war. She cited Henry Luce’s reference in Life magazine on July 20, 1942, to “the Chinese for whom the U.S. had delivered the ultimatum that brought on Pearl Harbor.” She introduced evidence that at the Atlantic Conference on August 12, 1941, Roosevelt had assured Churchill that the United States would bring economic pressure to bear on Japan. “I cited,” Rankin later wrote,

“the State Department Bulletin of December 20, 1941, which revealed that on September 3 a communication had been sent to Japan demanding that it accept the principle of ‘nondisturbance of the status quo in the Pacific,’ which amounted to demanding guarantees of the inviolateness of the white empires in the Orient.”

Rankin found that the Economic Defense Board had gotten economic sanctions under way less than a week after the Atlantic Conference. On December 2, 1941, the New York Times had reported, in fact, that Japan had been “cut off from about 75 percent of her normal trade by the Allied blockade.” Rankin also cited the statement of Lieutenant Clarence E. Dickinson, U.S.N., in the Saturday Evening Post of October 10, 1942, that on November 28, 1941, nine days before the attack, Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., (he of the slogan “kill Japs, kill Japs!”) had given instructions to him and others to “shoot down anything we saw in the sky and to bomb anything we saw on the sea.”

Whether World War II was the “good war” we are so often told it was, I will defer to chapter four. That it was a defensive war because our innocent imperial outpost in the middle of the Pacific was attacked out of the clear blue sky is a myth that deserves to be buried.


One of the least defensible forms of supposedly defensive wars is the war based only on the pretense of aggression by the other side. This was how the United States got into the war through which it stole its southwestern states from Mexico. Before Abraham Lincoln became, as president, the celebrated abuser of war powers who has served to excuse similar abuses by so many of his successors, he was a congressman aware that the Constitution had given the power to declare war to the Congress. In 1847, Congressman Lincoln accused President James Polk of lying the nation into a war by blaming Mexico for aggression when that charge rightly should have been made against the U.S. Army and Polk himself. Lincoln joined with former president and then-current congressman John Quincy Adams in seeking a formal investigation of Polk’s actions and the formal sanctioning of Polk for lying the nation into war.

Polk responded, as Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson would later do, by announcing that he would not seek a second term. Both houses of Congress then passed a resolution honoring Major General Zachary Taylor for his performance “in a war unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the president of the United States.”  It was a common understanding that the Constitution did not sanction aggressive wars, but only wars of defense. Ulysses S. Grant considered the Mexican War, in which he nonetheless fought,

“. . . one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”

Lincoln’s speech on the floor of the House on January 12, 1848, is a high point of war debate in American history and included these phrases:

“Let him [President James Polk] remember he sits where Washington sat, and so remembering, let him answer as Washington would answer. As a nation should not, and the Almighty will not, be evaded, so let him attempt no evasion — no equivocation. And if, so answering, he can show that the soil was ours where the first blood of the war was shed — that it was not within an inhabited country, or, if within such, that the inhabitants had submitted themselves to the civil authority of Texas or of the United States, and that the same is true of the site of Fort Brown — then I am with him for his justification. . . . But if he can not or will not do this — if on any pretense or no pretense he shall refuse or omit it — then I shall be fully convinced of what I more than suspect already — that he is deeply conscious of being in the wrong, that he feels the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to Heaven against him . . . . How like the half-insane mumbling of a fever dream, is the whole war part of his late message!”

I can’t imagine most members of Congress speaking of a war-making president with such honesty today. I also can’t imagine wars ever coming to an end until that sort of thing happens with some regularity and is backed up by cutting off the funds.

Even while denouncing a war based on lies whose blood was crying to heaven, Lincoln and his fellow Whigs voted repeatedly to fund it.  On June 21, 2007, Senator Carl Levin (D., Mich.) cited Lincoln’s example in the Washington Post as justification for his own stance as an “opponent” of the War on Iraq who would continue to fund it through eternity as a means of “supporting the troops.” Interestingly, regiments from Virginia, Mississippi, and North Carolina sent to risk their lives killing innocent Mexicans in the war that Lincoln funded on their behalf mutinied against their officers. And at least 9,000 U.S. soldiers, enlisted and volunteer, deserted from the Mexican War.

Some hundreds, in fact, including Irish immigrants, switched their allegiance and enlisted on the Mexican side, forming the Saint Patrick’s Battalion. According to Robert Fantina, in his book Desertion and the American Soldier, “Perhaps more than in any previous war, in the Mexican-American War lack of belief in the cause was a major reason for deserting.” Wars seldom end — except through complete destruction of one side — without that kind of resistance among those sent to do the fighting. When the United States paid Mexico for the vast territory it was taking, the Whig Intelligencer wrote, apparently without irony, “We take nothing by conquest . . . . Thank God.”

Many years later, David Rovics would pen these song lyrics:

It was there in the pueblos and hillsides

That I saw the mistake I had made

Part of a conquering army

With the morals of a bayonet blade

So in the midst of these poor, dying Catholics

Screaming children, the burning stench of it all

Myself and two hundred Irishmen

Decided to rise to the call

From Dublin City to San Diego

We witnessed freedom denied

So we formed the Saint Patrick Battalion

And we fought on the Mexican side

In 1898 the USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbor, and U.S. newspapers quickly blamed the Spanish, crying out “Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!” Newspaper owner William Randolph Hearst did his best to fan the flames of a war he knew would boost circulation.  Who actually blew the ship up? Nobody knew. Certainly Spain denied it, Cuba denied it, and the United States denied it. Spain didn’t just casually deny it either. Spain conducted an investigation and found that the explosion had been inside the ship. Realizing that the United States would reject this finding, Spain proposed a joint investigation by both countries and offered to submit to binding arbitration by an impartial international panel. The United States wasn’t interested. Whatever caused the explosion, Washington wanted war.

More recent investigations raise the distinct possibility that the Maine was indeed sunk by an explosion, whether accidental or intentional, that occurred within it, rather than by a mine outside it. But no experts have proven one theory over another to the satisfaction of all, and I’m not sure what good it would do. The Spanish could have found a way to plant a bomb inside the ship. Americans could have found a way to place a mine outside it. Knowing where the explosion took place won’t tell us who, if anyone, caused it. But even if we knew for certain who caused it, how, and why, none of that information would change the basic account of what happened in 1898.

The nation went mad for war in response to an attack by Spain for which there was no evidence, merely conjecture. An American ship had blown up, Americans had been killed, and there was a possibility that Spain might be responsible. In combination with other grievances against Spain, this was reason (or excuse) enough to bang the war drums. The pretense of certainty that Spain was to blame was nothing other than a pretense. That fact would remain unaltered even if proof were somehow to emerge that Spain in fact blew up the Maine, just as President George W. Bush’s crew would have been lying about its certainty that Iraq had weapons in 2003 even if some weapons had later been found. This alleged atrocity — the sinking of the Maine — was used to launch a war “in defense of” Cuba and the Philippines that involved attacking and occupying Cuba and the Philippines, and Puerto Rico for good measure.

Remember those lines from Smedley Butler that I quoted above about how pleased the Japanese would be to see the U.S. fleet playing war games near Japan? These were the next lines in that same passage:

“The ships of our navy, it can be seen, should be specifically limited, by law, to within 200 miles of our coastline. Had that been the law in 1898 the Maine would never have gone to Havana Harbor. She never would have been blown up. There would have been no war with Spain with its attendant loss of life.”

Butler has a point, even if it’s not a mathematical one. It works if we think of Miami as the closest U.S. land to Cuba, but Key West much closer — only 106 miles from Havana — and the U.S. military had claimed it in 1822, built a base, and held it for the North even during the Civil War. Key West was the largest and wealthiest city in Florida when the Maine blew up. Ernest Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms there, but the military has yet to leave Key West.

Perhaps the height of dishonest pretense in manufacturing a so-called defensive war is to be found in the example of Nazi Germany’s actions when it was ready to invade Poland. Heinrich Himmler’s SS men staged a series of incidents. In one, a group of them dressed in Polish uniforms, barged into a German radio station in a border town, forced the employees into the basement, and announced their anti-German intentions in Polish on the air while firing guns. They brought along a German who actually sympathized with the Poles, killed him, and left him behind to look as if he’d been shot while taking part in their effort. Adolf Hitler told the German Army that force would have to be met with force, and proceeded to attack Poland.

By 2008, the Bush-Cheney administration had been pushing a case for war on Iran unsuccessfully for years. Tales of Iranian support for the Iraqi resistance, Iranian development of nuclear weapons, Iranian ties to terrorists, and so forth were trotted out with great regularity, and completely ignored or rejected by the American people, over 90 percent of whom remained opposed to attacking Iran. Vice President Dick Cheney and his staff, apparently growing desperate, dreamed up, but never acted on, a scheme that would have made Hitler proud. The idea was to build four or five boats that would look like Iranian PT boats and put Navy Seals on them with “a lot of arms.” They could start a firefight with a U.S. ship in the Straight of Hormuz, and voila, you’d have a war with Iran. The proposal was reportedly dropped because it would have required Americans to fire on Americans.

That concern had not stopped the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1962 from sending the Secretary of “Defense” a plan called Operation Northwoods that called for attacking U.S. cities and blaming the attacks on Cuba. That these plans were not acted upon does not diminish their value as clues to the thinking of the people from whose brains they emerged. These were people hunting for excuses for war.

When Britain began bombing civilian targets in Germany in 1940, this was supposed to be seen as retaliation even though Germany had not yet bombed British civilian targets. To accomplish this feat, Winston Churchill told his new minister of information to “arrange that discreet reference should be made in the press to the killing of civilians in France and the Low Countries, in the course of the German air attacks.” Britain had actually declared war on Germany in response to Germany’s invasion of Poland. This is a common way in which nations that have not been attacked claim to be engaging in “defensive” wars. Wars are launched in defense of allies (something that agreements like the one that created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] bind nations to do).

Some wars are launched in “preemptive” defense against the possibility that a nation might attack ours if we don’t attack theirs first. “Do unto others, before they can do unto you” is, I believe, how Jesus put it. In modern militaristic parlance this comes out as “fight ‘em over there so we don’t halfta fight ‘em here.”

The first problem with this approach is that we have only the vaguest notion of who “them” is. Terrified of a small group of Saudi terrorists, we launch wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. Fantasizing that the enemy, whoever it is, hates us for our freedoms, we fail to realize that they hate us for our bombs and our bases. So our solution just makes the situation worse.

Since our Civil War, the United States has not fought wars at home. We’re used to fighting our wars far away and out of sight. The television cameras in Vietnam were a brief interruption to this pattern, and realistic images even of that war were the exception to the rule.  In the two world wars and many wars since, we’ve been told we might be attacked at home if we didn’t go and attack others abroad. In the case of World War I, we were told that Germany had attacked our good and innocent allies, might eventually attack us, and had in fact attacked innocent American civilians aboard a ship called the Lusitania.

German submarines had been giving warnings to civilian ships, allowing passengers to abandon them before they were sunk. When this exposed the U-boats to counterattacks, however, the Germans began attacking without warning. That was how they sank the Lusitania on May 7, 1915, killing 1,198 people, including 128 Americans. But, through other channels, the Germans had already warned those passengers. The Lusitania had been built to specifications of the British Navy which listed it as an auxiliary cruiser. On its final voyage, the Lusitania was packed with American-made war materiel, including ten-and-a-half tons of rifle cartridges, 51 tons of shrapnel shells, and a large supply of gun cotton, not to mention 67 soldiers of the 6th Winnipeg Rifles. That the ship was carrying troops and weapons to war was not actually a secret. Before the Lusitania left New York, the German Embassy had obtained permission from the U.S. Secretary of State to publish in New York newspapers a warning that because the ship was carrying war supplies it would be subject to attack.

Upon the sinking of the Lusitania, those same newspapers, and all other American newspapers, declared the attack murder and omitted any mention of what the ship had carried. When President Wilson protested to the German government, pretending the Lusitania had not contained any troops or weapons, his secretary of state resigned in protest of Wilson. The British and U.S. governments falsified the ship’s manifests and lied so effectively that many people today imagine there is doubt over whether the Lusitania had weapons on board. Or they imagine that dive crews discovering arms in the wreckage of the ship in 2008 were resolving a long-standing mystery. Here’s an excerpt from a report aired on National Public Radio on November 22, 2008:

“When the Lusitania went down, it left a mystery behind: What was the cause of the second blast? After nearly a century of investigation, argument and intrigue, clues are starting to surface. . . . In his hands lie pieces of history: seven gleaming rounds of .303 ammunition, probably made by Remington in America and intended for the British Army. Ammunition that for decades British and American officials said didn’t exist. Yet all around Andrews are mountains of jumbled rifle cartridges that glint like pirate’s treasure in the robot’s light.”

Never mind that the contents of the ship had been publicly announced before it sailed, official lies are given their expected place in the “balanced” media coverage that surrounds us so completely we can’t detect its utter stupidity . . . even 90 years later.


German propaganda efforts in the United States failed miserably in the face of a superior approach by the British and American governments during World War I. The British actually cut the telegraph cable between Germany and the United States so that Americans would get their war news only from Britain. That news was of horrible atrocities — a battle between civilization and the barbarian hordes (those being the Germans, of course). Not only could readers learn about Germans slicing the hands off children and boiling their own troops’ corpses for glycerin, and other horrifying fantasies, but the British were apparently winning every battle in a quite enjoyable fashion. While British war correspondents were strictly censored, they needn’t have been, as they viewed their own role as hiding the war from the public in order to boost military recruitment in Britain. The Times of London explained:

“A principle aim of the war policy of [the Times] was to increase the flow of recruits. It was an aim that would get little help from accounts of what happened to recruits once they became soldiers.”

President Wilson’s sales team for the war, the Committee on Public Information, exercised the power of censorship and would end up banning images of dead Americans while the Postmaster General did his part by banning all radical magazines. The CPI also convinced people that fighting the Germans would amount to a defense of democracy in the world and that German defeat in war, as opposed to difficult and serious diplomacy, would create world democracy.

Wilson needed a million soldiers, but in the first six weeks after declaring war, only 73,000 volunteered. Congress was forced, and not for the first time, to create a draft. Daniel Webster had eloquently denounced a draft as unconstitutional in 1814 when it had been attempted unsuccessfully by President James Madison, but drafts had been used on both sides during the Civil War, albeit with the allowance that rich men could pay poor men to go and die in their place. Not only did Americans have to be forced to fight in World War I (and subsequent wars), but in addition 1,532 of the most vocal opponents had to be thrown into prison. The fear of being shot for treason had to be spread throughout the land (as former Secretary of War Elihu Root proposed in the New York Times) before the flag waving and military music could proceed uninterrupted. War opponents were, in some cases, lynched, and the mobs acquitted.

The story of this clampdown on free speech — its echoes reverberating through the October 2010 FBI raids on peace activists’ homes in Minneapolis, Chicago, and other cities — is well told in Norman Thomas’ 1935 book, War: No Glory, No Profit, No Need, and in Chris Hedges’ 2010 book, The Death of the Liberal Class. Four-time presidential candidate Eugene Debs was locked up and sentenced to 10 years for suggesting that working people had no interest in the war. The Washington Post called him a “public menace,” and applauded his incarceration.  He would run for president a fifth time from prison and receive 913,664 votes. At his sentencing Debs remarked:

“Your honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

The United States was manipulated into World War I to come to the aid of Britain and France, but the people of those countries were not all going along with the war. At least 132,000 Frenchmen opposed the war, refused to take part, and were exiled.

After two world wars with a depression in between, none of which Americans had submitted to voluntarily, President Harry S Truman had some bad news. If we didn’t set off immediately to fight communists in Korea, they would shortly invade the United States. That this was recognized as patent nonsense is perhaps suggested by the fact that, once again, Americans had to be drafted if they were going to go off and fight. The Korean War was waged in supposed defense of the way of life in the United States and in supposed defense of South Korea against aggression by North Korea. Of course it had been the arrogant genius of the Allies to slice the Korean nation in half at the end of World War II.

On June 25, 1950, the north and the south each claimed the other side had invaded. The first reports from U. S. military intelligence were that the south had invaded the north. Both sides agreed that the fighting began near the west coast at the Ongjin peninsula, meaning that Pyongyang was a logical target for an invasion by the south, but an invasion by the north there made little sense as it led to a small peninsula and not to Seoul. Also on June 25th, both sides announced the capture by the south of the northern city of Haeju, and the U.S. military confirmed that. On June 26th, the U.S. ambassador sent a cable confirming a southern advance: “Northern armor and artillery are withdrawing all along the line.”

South Korean President Syngman Rhee had been conducting raids of the north for a year and had announced in the spring his intention to invade the north, moving most of his troops to the 38th parallel, the imaginary line along which the north and south had been divided. In the north only a third of available troops were positioned near the border.

Nonetheless, Americans were told that North Korea had attacked South Korea, and had done so at the behest of the Soviet Union as part of a plot to take over the world for communism. Arguably, whichever side attacked, this was a civil war. The Soviet Union was not involved, and the United States ought not to have been. South Korea was not the United States, and was not in fact anywhere near the United States. Nonetheless, we entered another “defensive” war.

We persuaded the United Nations that the north had invaded the south, something the Soviet Union might have been expected to veto had it been behind the war, but the Soviet Union was boycotting the United Nations and took no interest. We won some countries’ votes at the United Nations by lying to them that the south had captured tanks manned by Russians. U.S. officials publicly declared Soviet involvement but privately doubted it.

The Soviet Union, in fact, did not want a war and on July 6th its deputy foreign minister told the British ambassador in Moscow that it wanted a peaceful settlement. The U.S. ambassador in Moscow thought this was genuine. Washington didn’t care. The North, our government said, had violated the 38th parallel, that sacred line of national sovereignty. But as soon as U.S. General Douglas MacArthur got the chance, he proceeded, with President Truman’s approval, right across that line, into the north, and up to the border of China. MacArthur had been drooling for a war with China and threatening it, and asked for permission to attack, which the Joint Chiefs of Staff refused. Eventually, Truman fired MacArthur. Attacking a power plant in North Korea that supplied China, and bombing a border city, was the closest MacArthur got to what he wanted.

But the U.S. threat to China brought the Chinese and Russians into the war, a war that cost Korea two million civilian lives and the United States 37,000 soldiers, while turning Seoul and Pyongyang both into piles of rubble. Many of the dead had been killed at close range, slaughtered unarmed and in cold-blood by both sides. And the border was right back where it had been, but the hatred directed across that border greatly increased. When the war ended, having accomplished no good for anyone but weapons makers, “people emerged from a mole-like existence in caves and tunnels to find a nightmare in the bright of day.”


And we were just warming up. When President Truman spoke to a joint session of Congress and over the radio on March 12, 1947, he divided the world into two opposing forces, the free world, and the world of the communists and totalitarians. Susan Brewer writes:

“Truman’s speech successfully established the themes of Cold War propaganda. First, it defined the situation as an immediate crisis, which demanded quick action by the chief executive and allowed no time for investigation, domestic debate, or negotiation. Second, it blamed international problems, whether caused by postwar devastation, internal political struggles, nationalist movements, or actual Soviet aggression, on Soviet aggression. Third, it portrayed Americans as acting on behalf of human freedom, not out of economic self-interest. The Truman Doctrine established the framework that would justify the implementation of the Marshall Plan, the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the National Security Council (NSC), and the Federal Employee Loyalty Program, the rebuilding of West Germany, especially following the Russians’ attempt to blockade Berlin, and, in 1949, the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).”

These changes increased presidential control over war powers and facilitated secret and unaccountable warlike operations, such as the overthrow of Iran’s democracy in 1953, at which time U.S. officials invented the fiction that Iran’s democratically elected president was a communist, as Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson and Norman Schwarzkopf’s father orchestrated a coup and replaced Time magazine’s 1951 Man of the Year with a dictator.

Next on the block was Guatemala. Edward Bernays had been hired in 1944 by United Fruit. A veteran of the Committee on Public Information which had marketed World War I, nephew of Sigmund Freud, and father of the noble profession of exploiting and encouraging human irrationality through “public relations,” Bernays, had published a book in 1928 called simply Propaganda, which actually propagandized for the merits of propaganda. Bernays helped United Fruit’s Sam Zemurray (who had overthrown the president of Honduras in 1911) by creating a PR campaign beginning in 1951 in the United States against the overly democratic government of Guatemala. The New York Times and other media outlets followed Bernays’ lead, depicting the noble United Fruit as suffering under the rule of a Marxist dictatorship — which was actually an elected government implementing New Deal-type reforms.

Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. (R., Mass.) led the effort in Congress. He was the great-great-great-grandson of Senator George Cabot (F., Mass.) and grandson of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (R., Mass.) who had pushed the country into the Spanish-American War and World War I, defeated the League of Nations, and built up the Navy. Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. would go on to serve as ambassador to South Vietnam, in which position he would help maneuver the nation into the Vietnam War. While the Soviet Union had no relations with Guatemala, the father of the CIA Allen Dulles was certain or claimed to be certain that Moscow was directing Guatemala’s fictional march toward communism. With President Dwight Eisenhower’s approval, the CIA overthrew Guatemala’s government on behalf of United Fruit. Key to the operation was the work of Howard Hunt, who would later break into the Watergate for President Richard Nixon. None of this would have surprised Smedley Butler.

And then — following a missile crisis in Cuba during which the war planners nearly destroyed the planet to make a point, and various other exciting adventures — came Vietnam, a war of aggression in which we were falsely told, as we were in Korea, that the North had started it. We could save South Vietnam or watch all of Asia and then our own nation fall victim to the communist threat, we were told. Presidents Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy said the nations of Asia (and even Africa and Latin America too, according to General Maxwell Taylor) could fall like dominoes. This was another piece of nonsense that would be recycled in modified form in the “Global War on Terror” waged by Presidents G.W. Bush and Obama. Arguing in March 2009 for his escalation of the War on Afghanistan which a growing majority of Americans opposed, Obama, according to blogger Juan Cole:

“. . . described the same sort of domino effect that Washington elites used to ascribe to international communism. In the updated, al-Qaida version, the Taliban might take Kunar Province, and then all of Afghanistan, and might again host al-Qaida, and might then threaten the shores of the United States. He even managed to add an analog to Cambodia to the scenario, saying, ‘The future of Afghanistan is inextricably linked to the future of its neighbor, Pakistan,’ and warned, ‘Make no mistake: Al-Qaida and its extremist allies are a cancer that risks killing Pakistan from within.’“

The dramatic incident, however, that was used to escalate the Vietnam War was a fictional attack on U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin on August 4, 1964. These were U.S. war ships off the coast of North Vietnam that were engaged in military actions against North Vietnam. President Lyndon Johnson knew he was lying when he claimed the August 4th attack was unprovoked. Had it happened, it could not have been unprovoked. The same ship that was supposedly attacked on August 4th, had damaged three North Vietnamese boats and killed four North Vietnamese sailors two days earlier, in an action where the evidence suggests the United States fired first, although the opposite was claimed. In fact, in a separate operation days earlier, the United States had begun shelling the mainland of North Vietnam.

But the supposed attack on August 4th was actually, at most, a misreading of U.S. sonar. The ship’s commander cabled the Pentagon claiming to be under attack, and then immediately cabled to say his earlier belief was in doubt and no North Vietnamese ships could be confirmed in the area. President Johnson was not sure there had been any attack when he told the American public there had been. Months later he admitted privately: “For all I know, our navy was just shooting at whales out there.” But by then Johnson had the authorization from Congress for the war he’d wanted.

In fact, by then he’d also lied us into an additional little military action in the Dominican Republic to defend Americans and prevent the imagined spread of communism. As we have seen, no Americans were actually in danger. But that justification had been cooked up as a substitute for the claim of combating communism, which Johnson knew to be baseless and couldn’t be sure would fly. In a closed session of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Mann later explained that the U.S. ambassador had asked the head of the Dominican military if he’d be willing to play along with the alternative lie:

“All we requested was whether he would be willing to change the basis for this from one of fighting communism to one of protecting American lives.”

That same year, President Johnson made his humanitarian and democratic motivations clear in a comment to the Greek ambassador, whose country had unforgivably elected a liberal prime minister not favored by the United States, and dared to squabble with Turkey and oppose U.S. plans to partition Cyprus. Johnson’s comment, sure to be remembered as fondly as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, was:

“Fuck your parliament and your constitution. America is an elephant, Cyprus is a flea. If these two fleas continue itching the elephant, they may just get whacked by the elephant’s trunk, whacked good. We pay a lot of good American dollars to the Greeks, Mr. Ambassador. If your Prime Minister gives me a talk about democracy, parliament, and constitutions, he, his parliament, and his constitution may not last very long.”

The project of choosing the excuses for a war sometimes seems to be shaped by bureaucratic infighting. Shortly after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when people who had believed the lies were asking where all the weapons were, Deputy “Defense” Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told Vanity Fair,

“The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy, we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason.”

In a 2003 documentary called The Fog of War, Robert McNamara, who had been Secretary of “Defense” at the time of the Tonkin lies, admitted that the August 4th attack did not happen and that there had been serious doubts at the time. He did not mention that on August 6th he had testified in a joint closed session of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees along with General Earl Wheeler. Before the two committees, both men claimed with absolute certainty that the North Vietnamese had attacked on August 4th. McNamara also did not mention that just days after the Tonkin Gulf non-incident, he had asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff to provide him with a list of further U.S. actions that might provoke North Vietnam. He obtained the list and advocated for those provocations in meetings prior to Johnson’s ordering such actions on September 10th. These actions included resuming the same ship patrols and increasing covert operations, and by October ordering ship-to-shore bombardment of radar sites.

A National Security Agency (NSA) report in 2000-2001 concluded there had been no attack at Tonkin on August 4th, and that the NSA had deliberately lied. The Bush Administration did not allow the report to be published until 2005, due to concern that it might interfere with lies being told to get the Afghanistan and Iraq wars started. On March 8, 1999, Newsweek had published the mother of all lies: “America has not started a war in this century.” No doubt Team Bush thought it best to leave that pretense undisturbed.

I discussed the lies that launched the War on Iraq in my previous book, Daybreak, and they don’t need review here, except to note that the extensive propaganda effort used to market that war drew from the entire repertoire of past war lies including the work of President George W. Bush’s predecessor and promoter of humanitarian aggression, President Bill Clinton. Since occupying Cuba to liberate it, the United States has overthrown numerous governments for the supposed good of their people. In recent decades, it has become almost routine for presidents to launch air strikes against suspected terrorists or with the stated goal of preventing crimes against humanity. Clinton developed this presidential prerogative by using NATO, in violation of the U.N. Charter and unconstitutionally in defiance of congressional opposition, to bomb the former Yugoslavia in 1999.

The legal danger of such humanitarian bombing missions is that, if the United Nations is circumvented, any nation can claim the same right to start dropping bombs as long as it proclaims humanitarian purposes. The constitutional danger is that any president can take such actions without the approval of the people’s representatives in Congress. In fact, the House of Representatives voted not to authorize the bombing in 1999, and the executive went ahead with it anyway. The human danger of these bombing “campaigns” is that the harm done can be as heavy as any that might be prevented. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia found that NATO’s bombing may have increased, rather than diminish, the war crimes it was justified by — most of which occurred during and not prior to the bombing.

Meanwhile, numerous humanitarian crises, such as the Rwandan genocide of 1994, are ignored because they are not considered to be of strategic value or because no easy military solution is seen. We think of crises of all sorts (from hurricanes to oil spills to genocides) as only solvable with the often inappropriate tool of the military. If a war is already going on, the excuse of disaster relief isn’t needed. In 2003 in Iraq, for example, U.S. troops guarded the oil ministry while institutions of cultural and humanitarian value were looted and destroyed. In 2010 U.S. troops in Pakistan prioritized protecting an air base rather than aiding flood victims. Of course the environmental and human disasters created by one’s own wars are quietly ignored, for example the Iraqi refugee crisis at the time of this writing.

Then there’s the danger of not knowing what we’re doing because we’re being lied to. With war, this is not so much a danger as a near-certainty. Using a tool that kills great numbers of people and is always justified with lies seems a dubious proposition even on humanitarian grounds. When, in 1995, Croatia had slaughtered or “ethnically cleansed” Serbs with Washington’s blessing, driving 150,000 people from their homes, we weren’t supposed to notice, much less drop bombs to prevent it. The bombing was saved for Milosevic, who — we were told in 1999 — refused to negotiate peace and therefore had to be bombed. We were not told that the United States was insisting on an agreement that no nation in the world would voluntarily agree to, one giving NATO complete freedom to occupy all of Yugoslavia with absolute immunity from laws for all of its personnel. In the June 14, 1999, issue of The Nation, George Kenney, a former State Department Yugoslavia desk officer, reported:

“An unimpeachable press source who regularly travels with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told this [writer] that, swearing reporters to deep-background confidentiality at the Rambouillet talks, a senior State Department official had bragged that the United States ‘deliberately set the bar higher than the Serbs could accept.’ The Serbs needed, according to the official, a little bombing to see reason.”

Jim Jatras, a foreign policy aide to Senate Republicans, reported in a May 18, 1999, speech at the Cato Institute in Washington that he had it “on good authority” that a “senior Administration official told media at Rambouillet, under embargo” the following: “We intentionally set the bar too high for the Serbs to comply. They need some bombing, and that’s what they are going to get.”

In interviews with FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), both Kenney and Jatras asserted that these were actual quotes transcribed by reporters who spoke with a U.S. official.

Negotiating for the impossible, and falsely accusing the other side of noncooperation, is a handy way to launch a “defensive” war.  Behind that scheme in 1999 was special U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke, whom we encountered above in 2010 defending an aggressive war on Afghanistan.

Atrocities against the same group of people can be grounds for humanitarian war or matters of no concern at all, depending on whether the perpetrator is an ally of the United States’ government. Saddam Hussein could murder Kurds until he fell out of favor, at which point murdering Kurds became horrific and galvanizing — unless Turkey did it, in which case it was nothing to worry about. In 2010, the year I wrote this book, Turkey was risking its status, however. Turkey and Brazil had taken steps to facilitate peace between the United States and Iran, which of course angered many in Washington, D.C. And then Turkey had assisted aid ships seeking to bring food and supplies to the people of Gaza who were being blockaded and starved by the government of Israel. This caused the Israel-right-or-wrong lobby in Washington, D.C., to reverse a longstanding position and support the idea of Congress “recognizing” the 1915 Armenian Genocide. Had the Armenians suddenly become full humans? Of course not. It had simply become desirable to accuse Turkey, a century too late, of genocide, precisely because Turkey was attempting to alleviate the present-day strangulation of a people.

Former President Jimmy Carter, whom Noam Chomsky calls our least violent president since World War II, has bravely denounced his fair share of atrocities, including those committed by Israel, but not the slaughter of the East Timorese by Indonesia for which his administration provided much of the weaponry, or the slaughter of Salvadorans by their government for which his administration did the same. Atrocious behavior is sanctioned and kept quiet when strategic. It is highlighted and used to justify wars only when the makers of wars want a war for some other set of reasons. Those who obediently cheer for the pretended reasons for a war are being used.

There is one war in U.S. history that we openly refer to as aggression and do not try to defend as defensive. Or, rather, some of us do. Many Southerners refers to it as the War of Northern Aggression, and the North calls it the Civil War. It was a war the South fought for the right to leave and the North fought to prevent states from leaving, not to defend itself against a foreign assault. We’ve come a long way in terms of the justifications we require of war makers. Although I doubt the U.S. government would allow a state to leave peacefully even today, any war today must be justified in humanitarian terms unknown in previous centuries.

As we will see in chapter four, wars have become more deadly and horrific. But the justifications put forward to explain or excuse them have become more benevolent and altruistic. We now fight wars for the benefit of the world out of kindness, love, and generosity.

At least that’s what I’ve heard and what we’ll examine in chapter three.

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