Four bloody lies of war, from Havana 1898 to Baghdad 2003
May 8, 2005
The Bush Administration's lies about its rationales for attacking Iraq fit a pattern of deceit that has dragged America into at least three other unjust and catastrophic wars.
The "smoking gun" documents that emerged in the recent British election confirm the administration had decided to go to war and then sought "intelligence" to sell it.
But conscious, manipulative lies were also at the root of American attacks on Cuba in 1898, US intervention into World War I in 1917 and in Vietnam. These lies are as proven and irrefutable as the unconscionable deception that dragged the US into Iraq in 2003.
In each case, these lies of war have caused horrific human slaughter, the destruction of human rights and liberties, and financial disaster.
In Cuba, the 1898 sinking of the battleship Maine brought the US into war with Spain. The people of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines were in revolt against the crumbling Spanish empire. Media baron William Randolph Hearst, the era's Rupert Murdoch, wanted a war to sell papers and promote "jingo" power. He portrayed the Spaniards barbaric rapists and worse. In the name of democracy and freedom, Hearst and pro-war fanatics like Theodore Roosevelt demanded US intervention.
Republican President William McKinley, personal hero of today's White House dirty trickster Karl Rove, dutifully sent the battleship Maine into Havana harbor. Suddenly, it blew up, killing some 250 American sailors.
Spain was blamed, and Hearst got his war. Having just conquered and annexed what had been the sovereign monarchy of Hawaii, the Americans now annexed Puerto Rico and installed colonial regimes in Cuba and the Philippines.
But Filipino guerillas waged a jungle resistance that dragged into the new century. Thousands died in the quagmire. An angry anti-imperial movement sprung up here amongst farmers, labor unions and intellectuals like Samuel Clemens, whose writings under the pen name Mark Twain remain among the fiercest critiques of the perils of empire.
And guess what! New underwater technology has shown that the Maine actually blew up from the inside. Definitive scientific analysis says the Spaniards could not have sunk it. The explosion that brought it down most likely came from a faulty boiler or a munitions misfire, but definitely not from a Spanish mine or torpedo.
The Spanish-American War, with all its bloody imperial slaughter, had been sold on a lie.
As was US intervention in World War I. In 1915, as part of a blockade against Great Britain, the Germans downed the passenger ship Lusitania, on its way from New York to London. More than a thousand people died, many of them Americans.
President Woodrow Wilson screamed that Germany had violated international law. As Hearst had done to the Spaniards, Wilson portrayed "the Huns" as merciless, bloodthirsty barbarians.
The Germans argued that the Lusitania had been carrying weapons, and that they were within their rights to sink her. A substantial majority of Americans angrily opposed US intervention, saying only bankers would profit and that war would divert us from the real issues of unionization, poverty and Robber Baron domination of American industry.
In the face of an anti-imperial majority, Wilson withdrew troops he had sent into Mexico, then ran as a "peace candidate" in 1916 on the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War".
But in April 1917, reviving bloody images of the Lusitania, Wilson dragged the US into the slaughter. More than 100,000 Americans died. Under cover of war, federal marshals burned and blew up offices of the Socialist Party and radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World. Wilson shredded the Bill of Rights and jailed, deported or killed thousands of organizers. Eugene V. Debs, the beloved leader of the American labor movement, was thrown in federal prison. The ideological left was crushed.
Wilson did tip the military balance for Britain and France. But his high-minded rhetoric about a League of Nations and a balanced peace fell into chaos. The Allies demanded reparations which helped feed the Nazi movement and an even greater slaughter in World War II. Wilson suffered a stroke and left the country in shambles.
And guess what! Deep sea divers recently found the Lusitania, its sunken hull laden with illegal armaments. As the Germans had claimed, the ship was violating international law. Like McKinley, Wilson had duped America into a catastrophic intervention based on a "faulty intelligence."
Likewise, Vietnam, which hysterical cold warriors portrayed as the key domino in a global struggle against communism. The US had cancelled 1956 elections which would have given to Ho Chi Minh control of a unified Vietnam. But nationalist guerillas were clearly on the brink of wresting South Vietnam from western control.
In 1964 North Vietnamese allegedly fired on two US ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. While campaigning as a peace candidate, Lyndon Johnson used the incident to win Congressional approval for unlimited intervention. By 1967 he'd sent some 550,000 US troops into Southeast Asia.
A mirror image of the earlier war in the Philippines, Vietnam may rank as the greatest of all modern American catastrophes. It split and alienated a generation, poisoned American politics, spawned a toxic cadre of dirty tricksters and marked the downturn of the American economy. The war destroyed Johnson's Great Society, and has rendered every American tangibly poorer in more ways than can be counted.
And guess what! The Gulf of Tonkin incident probably never happened. According to then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the Vietnamese may never actually have fired shots that may or may not have put a few bullet holes in one or two US ships. Even if they did, any such attack had zero military significance.
Like the Maine and Lusitania, the guns of Tonkin were nothing more than lies of war.
Bitter debate still also rages over the origins of World War II and Korea. Many argue that Franklin Roosevelt knew the Japanese were going to attack Pearl Harbor, and that he let it happen. Some also say that South Korea attacked North Korea, not vice-versa.
At least in terms of public consensus, these two stories still lack definitive smoking guns. But the Maine, the Lusitania and the Tonkin Gulf are known, irrefutable quantities.
To which we now must add George W. Bush's lies of Iraq. The war was primarily sold as a way to destroy Saddam Hussein's Weapons of Mass Destruction. The world was also told Saddam was involved in the 9/11 attacks on the US, and was trying to get nuclear bombs.
These were all lies. The British memos proving the Bush and Blair Administrations knew Saddam did not have WMDs, was not involved in 9/11 and had no way to make atomic weapons are now public monuments. Like the Maine, Lusitania and Tonkin, the proofs are tangible and irrefutable.
What happened to the perpetrators of those previous lies?
In 1901, William McKinley became the third sitting president (after Lincoln and Garfield) to be assassinated. Theodore Roosevelt then dragged the Philippine slaughter to its tragic conclusion. Only when his young son Quentin was killed in World War I did TR question the glories of imperial conquest.
Woodrow Wilson's debilitating stroke came as he imposed the most intense attack on civil liberties in US history destroying the Socialist Party and the ideological left. He was succeeded by the affable Warren G. Harding, who freed Eugene V. Debs from federal prison, then himself died in office (of apparent food poisoning) amidst the a sea of scandal.
After Tonkin, Lyndon Johnson's presidency descended into Wilsonian chaos. A ferocious anti-war movement forced him to duck out of running for re-election. Richard Nixon then took the lies of war to a whole new level, expanding the slaughter in Southeast Asia and becoming the first US president to resign in disgrace.
Nixon's "dirty trickster" disciples Karl Rove and Dick Cheney have now poisoned this nation with yet another ghastly lie of war. Their hopeless Iraqi slaughter has become the modern definition of cynical deceit, human butchery and economic ruin.
Exactly what will happen to us and to the liars that have dragged us into this latest bloody quagmire remains to be seen.
But history does not indicate a pretty outcome.
HARVEY WASSERMAN'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES is at www.harveywasserman.com.
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