Pearl Harbor Day today is like Columbus Day 50 years ago. That is to say: most people still believe the hype. The myths are still maintained in their blissful unquestioned state. “New Pearl Harbors” are longed for by war makers, claimed, and exploited. Yet the original Pearl Harbor remains the most popular U.S. argument for all things military, including the long-delayed remilitarization of Japan — not to mention the WWII internment of Japanese Americans as a model for targeting other groups today. Believers in Pearl Harbor imagine for their mythical event, in contrast to today, a greater U.S. innocence, a purer victimhood, a higher contrast of good and evil, and a total necessity of defensive war making.
The facts do not support the mythology. The United States government did not need to make Japan a junior partner in imperialism, did not need to fuel an arms race, did not need to support Nazism and fascism (as some of the biggest U.S. corporations did right through the war), did not need to provoke Japan, did not need to join the war in Asia or Europe, and was not surprised by the attack on Pearl Harbor. For support of each of these statements, keep reading.
This week I’m testifying at an Iraq Tribunal about the Downing Street Minutes. In U.S. thinking the 2003-2008 period of the decades-long war on Iraq is somehow worse than World War II. But when it comes to lies, bad decisions, and levels of death and destruction, there is just no comparison: World War II stands unchallenged as the worst thing humanity in general and the U.S. government in particular (as well as numerous other governments) have ever done. There’s even a parallel to the Downing Street Minutes.
On August 18, 1941, Prime Minister Winston 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.”
Indeed, everything was done to force an incident, and the incident was Pearl Harbor.
This was a very useful document that was released in a moment when it could have an important impact.
Like every war ever launched by anyone before or since (at least up until the age of openly blurting out “steal their oil” and “kill their families”), the 2003 stage in the Iraq war had been launched on the basis of lies and had been and still is continued on the basis of other lies.
We ought not to have needed any evidence. It is illegal to attack another country under the UN Charter and under the Kellogg Briand Pact (and arguably under the Hague Convention of 1899). And in this case, as with Afghanistan two years earlier, the UN had specifically rejected war. Launching a war is illegal and immoral no matter what weapons may be in the nation attacked and no matter what crimes that nation has committed. Launching a total assault on civilians to supposedly shock and awe them is illegal even in the understanding of lawyers who ignore the illegality of war. Morally it is one of the worst things ever done. Practically it has never worked.
Even if we accepted that weapons in Iraq or Iraqi crimes could justify a war, the evidence was clear that these were lies. The Iraqi government was opposed to the group it had supposedly collaborated with. In 1995 Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law had informed the U.S. and the British that all biological, chemical, missile, and nuclear weapons had been destroyed under his direct supervision. After U.N. inspectors left Iraq in 1998, the lead inspector said they’d come to the same conclusion. In 1999 at a primary debate in New Hampshire, Bush said he’d “take out” Saddam Hussein. “I’m surprised he’s still there,” he said. In 2001, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and others in the Bush Administration were telling the media that Saddam Hussein had no weapons. They transparently switched their views on command.
So, when the Downing Street Minutes came out on May 1, 2005, we jumped on it, not as new information but as evidence we could use, both to persuade others and to make a case in court or in Congress. These were the minutes of a meeting at Prime Minister Tony Blair’s office on July 23, 2002, at which his head of so-called intelligence, just back from Washington, reported (as summarized in the minutes):
“Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”
And so they were, as has been documented in extensive detail. The White House war schemers and their collaborators forged documents, solicited desired claims rejected by their own experts, relied on non-credible witnesses, fed fake evidence to complicit so-called journalists, and tortured desired statements out of victims they’d kidnapped. Bush concocted harebrained schemes to start a war that he publicly claimed to be trying to avoid. See, for example, the White House Memo.
But just the fact that the British had been informed that war was inevitable by July 23, 2002, ought to have been a big story in May 2005. We worked hard to make it such, pressuring a resistant corporate media that claimed either that it couldn’t verify a memo that was clearly authentic and not even disputed, or arguing that what it revealed was “old news,” even though it was brand new to anyone informed by those media outlets.
We made it into big news through public protests, reenactments in the lobbies of media outlets, floods of letters to editors, and a wide variety of creative actions. But we had an advantage. Democrats in Congress were in the minority and many of them were claiming they would take actions to end the war if given the majority. Key Congress members were supporting our efforts. I believe that we turned many of their encouraging claims into lies by shrinking rather than enlarging and intensifying our movement in January 2007.
When Diane Sawyer asked Bush why he had made the claims he had about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, he replied: “What’s the difference?”
Perhaps very little now, as we’ve been through eight years with a president who launches wars without bothering to lie to Congress. Or perhaps very much now, as we showed our power to resist lies about Syria in 2013 as a decade of activism against a war on Iraq backed Congress away from supporting a new war.
We have to make the answer matter. We have to tell the story properly, as half the United States still doesn’t know it. The biggest lie now, believed by many Americans, is that Iraq benefitted and the U.S. suffered (that second part is true) from the war that destroyed Iraq.
Toward correcting that false belief I submit into evidence a paper I wrote three years ago called Iraq War Among World’s Worst Events.
My biggest fear is that drone wars and proxy wars and secretive wars will continue to be launched without being preceded by public campaigns of lying. Or even worse: wars will be launched with honest proclamations that somebody’s oil needs to be stolen or some population needs to be slaughtered — and we won’t resist or succeed in stopping these crimes. One of the best tools we have in this struggle is awareness of every lie used to support every past war. We must increase that awareness at every opportunity.
Most importantly, we must dismantle the myths of Pearl Harbor.
Many Japanese are better able to recognize their government’s crimes, crimes before and after Pearl Harbor, as well as the crime of Pearl Harbor. The United States is almost entirely blind to its role. From the U.S. side, Pearl Harbor had roots in Germany.
Nazi Germany, we actually tend to overlook sometimes, could not have existed or waged war without the support for decades past and ongoing through the war of U.S. corporations like GM, Ford, IBM, and ITT. U.S. corporate interests preferred Nazi Germany to the communist Soviet Union, were happy to see those two nations’ peoples slaughter each other, and favored the United States entering the oh-so-good-and-necessary World War II on the side of England only once the U.S. government had made that very profitable. The U.S. delayed D-Day for years while Germany bled Russia dry, and within hours of Germany’s defeat, Churchill proposed a new war on Russia using German troops.
Churchill’s fervent hope for years before the U.S. entry into the war was that Japan would attack the United States. This would permit the United States (not legally, but politically) to fully enter World War II in Europe, as its president wanted to do, as opposed to merely providing weaponry and assisting in the targeting of submarines as it had been doing.
On December 7, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt drew up a declaration of war on both Japan and Germany, but decided it wouldn’t work and went with Japan alone. Germany quickly declared war on the United States, possibly in hopes that Japan would declare war on the Soviet Union.
Getting into the war was not a new idea in the Roosevelt White House. FDR had tried lying to the U.S. public about U.S. ships including the Greer and the Kerny, which had been helping British planes track German submarines, but which Roosevelt pretended had been innocently attacked. Roosevelt also lied that he had in his possession a secret Nazi map planning the conquest of South America, as well as a secret Nazi plan for replacing all religions with Nazism. The map was of the quality of Karl Rove’s “proof” that Iraq was buying uranium in Niger.
And yet, the people of the United States didn’t buy the idea of going into another war until Pearl Harbor, by which point Roosevelt had already instituted the draft, activated the National Guard, created a huge Navy in two oceans, traded old destroyers to England in exchange for the lease of its bases in the Caribbean and Bermuda, and — just 11 days before the “unexpected” attack, and five days before FDR expected it — he had secretly ordered the creation (by Henry Field) of a list of every Japanese and Japanese-American person in the United States.
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 held that meeting with his cabinet at 10 Downing Street.
An incident was forced.
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?”
“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.”
The U.S. 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, were provided to China prior to Pearl Harbor, 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.”
One cannot help being reminded here of Hillary Clinton’s comments to Goldman Sachs bankers. Clinton claimed to have told the Chinese that the United States could claim ownership of the entire Pacific as a result of having “liberated it.” She went on to claim to have told them that “We discovered Japan for heaven’s sake.” And: “We have proof of having bought [Hawaii].”
By September 1941 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, the U.S. 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. It has been well documented that the United States had broken the Japanese’ codes and that Roosevelt had access to them. It was through intercept of a so-called Purple code message that Roosevelt had discovered Germany’s plans to invade Russia. It was Hull who leaked a Japanese intercept to the press, resulting in the November 30, 1941, headline “Japanese May Strike Over Weekend.”
That next Monday 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 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 catchy 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.”
General George Marshall admitted as much to Congress in 1945: that the codes had been broken, that the United States had initiated Anglo-Dutch-American agreements for unified action against Japan and put them into effect before Pearl Harbor, and that the United States had provided officers of its military to China for combat duty before Pearl Harbor. It is hardly a secret that it takes two war powers to wage a war (unlike when one war power attacks an unarmed state) or that this case was no exception to that rule.
An October 1940 memorandum by Lieutenant Commander Arthur H. McCollum was acted on by President Roosevelt and his chief subordinates. It called for eight actions that McCollum predicted would lead the Japanese to attack, including arranging for the use of British bases in Singapore and for the use of Dutch bases in what is now Indonesia, aiding the Chinese government, sending a division of long-range heavy cruisers to the Philippines or Singapore, sending two divisions of submarines to “the Orient,” keeping the main strength of the fleet in Hawaii, insisting that the Dutch refuse the Japanese oil, and embargoing all trade with Japan in collaboration with the British Empire.
The day after McCollum’s memo, the State Department told Americans to evacuate far eastern nations, and Roosevelt ordered the fleet kept in Hawaii over the strenuous objection of Admiral James O. Richardson who quoted the President as saying “Sooner or later the Japanese would commit an overt act against the United States and the nation would be willing to enter the war.” The message that Admiral Harold Stark sent to Admiral Husband Kimmel on November 28, 1941, read, “IF HOSTILITIES CANNOT REPEAT CANNOT BE AVOIDED THE UNITED STATES DESIRES THAT JAPAN COMMIT THE FIRST OVERT ACT.” Joseph Rochefort, cofounder of the Navy’s communication intelligence section, who was instrumental in failing to communicate to Pearl Harbor what was coming, would later comment: “It was a pretty cheap price to pay for unifying the country.”
The night after the attack, President Roosevelt had CBS News’s Edward R. Murrow and Roosevelt’s Coordinator of Information William Donovan over for dinner at the White House, and all the President wanted to know was whether the American people would now accept war. Donovan and Murrow assured him the people would indeed accept war now. Donovan later told his assistant that Roosevelt’s surprise was not that of others around him, and that he, Roosevelt, welcomed the attack. Murrow was unable to sleep that night and was plagued for the rest of his life by what he called “the biggest story of my life” which he never told, but which he did not need to. The next day, the President spoke of a day of infamy, the United States Congress declared the last Constitutional war in the history of the republic, and the President of the Federal Council of Churches, Dr. George A. Buttrick, became a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation committing to resist the war.
Why does it matter? Because the legend of Pearl Harbor, re-used on 9-11, is responsible not for the destructive pro-war policies of the 1920s and the 1930s that brought World War II into being, but responsible for the permanent war mentality of the past 75 years, as well as for how World War II was escalated, prolonged, and completed.
“Disturbed in 1942,” wrote Lawrence S. Wittner, “by rumors of Nazi extermination plans, Jessie Wallace Hughan worried that such a policy, which appeared ‘natural, from their pathological point of view,’ might be carried out if World War II continued. ‘It seems that the only way to save thousands and perhaps millions of European Jews from destruction,’ she wrote, ‘would be for our government to broadcast the promise’ of an ‘armistice on condition that the European minorities are not molested any further. . . . It would be very terrible if six months from now we should find that this threat has literally come to pass without our making even a gesture to prevent it.’ When her predictions were fulfilled only too well by 1943, she wrote to the State Department and the New York Times, decrying the fact that ‘two million [Jews] have already died’ and that ‘two million more will be killed by the end of the war.’ Once again she pleaded for the cessation of hostilities, arguing that German military defeats would in turn exact reprisals upon the Jewish scapegoat. ‘Victory will not save them,’ she insisted, ‘for dead men cannot be liberated.'”
Hitler killed millions of Germans, but the allies killed as many or more, Germans ordered into battle by Hitler or Germans in the wrong place when allied bombs fell. And, as Hughan pointed out at the time, the war drove the genocide, just as the vengeful settlement of the previous war a quarter century before had fueled the hostility, the scapegoating, and the rise of Hitlerism.
Out of the resistance to war by U.S. conscientious objectors would come, finally, the development of civil resistance to racial segregation in U.S. prisons that later spread to the nation outside the prisons as activists sought to duplicate their victories on a larger scale. But also out of that very worst thing our species has ever done to itself, World War II, would come the permanent military industrial complex. We would extend the power to vote to more and more Americans while, in the cruelest of jokes, transforming voting into an ever more meaningless enterprise. We would paint a fresh coat of glossy pretense on our democracy while hollowing it out from the inside, replacing it with a war machine the likes of which the planet had never seen and may not be able to survive.
Spreading the Myth
The United States is indisputably the world’s most frequent and extensive wager of aggressive war, largest occupier of foreign lands, and biggest weapons dealer to the world. But when the United States peeps out from under the blankets where it lies shivering with fear, it sees itself as an innocent victim. It has no holiday to keep any victorious battle in everyone’s mind. It has a holiday to remember the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — and now also one, perhaps holier still, to recall, not the “shock and awe” destruction of Baghdad, but the crimes of September 11, 2001, the “new Pearl Harbor.”
Similar to Israel, but with a variation, the United States is deeply obsessed with World War II, overlaid of course on a Southern obsession with the U.S. Civil War. The Southern U.S. love for the Civil War is love for a war lost, but also for victimhood and the righteousness of the vengeance wreaked on the world year after year by the U.S. military.
The U.S. love for World War II is also, fundamentally, love for a war lost. That may seem odd to say, because it is simultaneously very much love for a war won. World War II remains the U.S. model for potentially some day winning a war again, as it’s been losing them all over the world for the 71 years since World War II. But the U.S. view of WWII is also strangely similar to the Russian view.
Russia was brutally attacked by the Nazis, but persevered and won the war. The United States believes itself to have been “imminently” attacked by the Nazis. That, after all, was the propaganda that took the United States to war. There was not one word about rescuing Jews or anything half that noble. Rather, President Franklin Roosevelt claimed to have a map of the Nazis’ plans for carving up the Americas.
Hollywood has made relatively few movies and television shows about all other wars combined, in comparison with dramas about World War II, which may in fact be its most popular topic ever. We’re really not drowning in movies glorifying the theft of northern Mexico or the occupation of the Philippines. The Korean War gets little play. Even the Vietnam War and all the more recent wars fail to inspire U.S. storytellers like World War II, and some 90% of those stories relate to the war in Europe, not Asia.
The European story is much preferred because of the particular evils of the German enemy. That the U.S. prevented a peace without victor in World War I by crushing Germany, and then punished it viciously, and then aided the Nazis — all of that is far more easily forgotten than the nuclear bombs that the United States dropped on Japan. But it is the Japanese attack of December 7, 1941, together with the fantasized Nazi invasion, that persuades the U.S. public that waging war in Europe was defensive. So the history of the United States training Japan in imperialism and then antagonizing and provoking Japan must be forgotten as well.
Amazon.com, a corporation with a huge CIA contract, and whose owner also owns the Washington Post, has launched a television series called the Man in the High Castle. The story is set in the 1960s with the Nazis occupying three-quarters of the United States and the Japanese the rest. In this alternative universe, the ultimate redemption is found in Germany being the nation to have dropped nuclear bombs.
The Axis victors, and their aging leaders, have created and maintained an old-fashioned empire — not like U.S. bases in proxy states, but a full-blown occupation, like the United States in Iraq. It doesn’t really matter how implausible this sounds. It is the most plausible scenario that can embody the U.S. fantasy of someone else doing to it what it does to others. Thus U.S. crimes here in the real 2000s become “defensive,” as it is doing unto others before they can do unto it.
Nonviolent resistance does not exist in Season One Episode One of this soothing victim adventure, and apparently hasn’t for years at that point in the tale. But how could it? A force stoppable through nonviolence — even an imaginary one — cannot serve to justify the violence of the actual U.S. military. The German and Japanese occupiers have to be confrontable only through violence, even anachronistically in an age in which nonviolent techniques were known, in which the civil rights movement was resisting U.S. fascism to great effect.
“Before the war … every man was free,” says one of the attractive young white people who constitute all the heroes and some of the villains in this drama. Instead of race riots, McCarthyism, Vietnam, and the sterilizing and experimenting on the powerless that actually happened, this alternative United States includes the burning of Jews, the disabled, and the terminally ill. The contrast to the imagined pre-Nazi past in which “every man [but not woman?] was free” is stark. One almost wishes to make America great again.
Amazon also shows us Nazis behaving much like the actual United States behaves: torturing and murdering enemies. Rikers Island is a brutal prison in this TV show and in reality. In this fantasy, the symbols of U.S. and Nazi patriotism have been merged seamlessly. In reality, the U.S. military incorporated much Nazi thinking along with the many Nazis it recruited through Operation Paperclip — another way in which the U.S. actually lost WWII if we imagine victory as democracy defeating the sort of society in which someone like Donald Trump could thrive.
The United States today manages to view refugees from the wars it wages in distant lands as dangerous enemies, as new Nazis, just as leading U.S. politicians refer to foreign leaders as new Hitlers. With U.S. citizens shooting up public places on an almost daily basis, when one such killing is alleged to have been done by a Muslim, especially a Muslim with any sympathy for foreign fighters, well, then that’s not just a shooting. That means that the United States has been invaded. And that means that anything it does is “defensive.”
Does Venezuela elect leaders the U.S. disapproves of? That’s a threat to “national security” — a somewhat magical threat to invade and occupy the United States and compel it to torture and kill wearing a different flag. This paranoia doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes from programs like The Man in the High Castle.
Pearl Harbor mythologizing is not just a field for entertainment. Here’s a newspaper article:
“Pearl Harbor and World War II brought us together as a nation. We believed we could not be beaten. And we prevailed. But why is Congress now so intent on destroying our feelings of patriotism and decimating our national defense? Many Congress members want to cut our national defense spending in an effort to compensate for their ineptness, for not fulfilling their responsibilities as our representatives and for catering to other groups and politicians for the sake of their pet (pork) projects and the next election. They forget (or don’t know) that their No. 1 priority is the defense of our country, and related to that, the protection of our veterans’ benefits. . . .
“Could the fact that America forgot about what happened at Pearl Harbor and let down its guard have helped allow the attacks of 9/11 to happen? And will this forgetfulness and ignorance stoke terrorists’ ambitions to expand their attacks? Because Congress’ ‘supercommittee’ failed to meet its deadline last month to identify $1.2 trillion in savings, spending cut triggers are now set to take effect in 2013, including $600 billion for defense. If Congress is allowed to cut the military budget, another attack becomes more likely.
“We must call the president, our congressional leaders, our two state senators and our representatives in the House to tell them to stop their foolishness, renew the military and Veterans Affairs budgets, and even increase them so that we may both strengthen our programs for research and development in order to remain the largest and best-equipped military in the world and to respect and honor our past veteran heroes.
“If we allow them to make defense cuts all in the name of getting out of Iraq, and eventually Afghanistan (which is probably a mistake, but that discussion will be for another day), there will be no more research funds to remain No. 1, no upgrades, no new tanks, planes, ships and drones, neither more nor better body armor and vehicles.”
Regardless of whether you believe the legend of Pearl Harbor, it is very difficult to deny that this is a different world. The United States does not just have the most expensive military in the world, but one the size of the rest of the world’s put together. The United States has bases or troops in most of the world’s other countries. The United States dominates the oceans and outerspace. The United States has sliced the planet up into command zones. Congress is dumping over half of discretionary spending into the military. While they’ve roughly doubled this spending, both in real dollars and as a percentage of the federal budget since 9-11, the fact is that the nuclear arsenal and the empire of bases and all the endless spending had nothing to do with 9-11 other than serving to provoke it. Your newspaper is asking you to live in a dream world, and to destroy this one in the process.
No new tanks? No new planes? $600 billion sounds big, but over 10 years it’s $60 billion out of an annual “security” budget of a trillion — meaning 6%. All that’s required to turn that into an increase instead of a cut is to take it out of a “projected” budget that increases by more than 6%. If any actual cutting happens, you can rest assured our misrepresentatives will do everything in their power to take the money out of non-military areas, or at least to cut troop benefits rather than the sacred and profitable tanks and planes etc., almost none of which has anything to do with “defense.”
Countering the Myth
As we read Ulysses on Bloomsday every June 16th (or we should if we don’t) I think that every December 7th should not only commemorate the Great Law of 1682 that banned war in Pennsylvania but also mark Pearl Harbor, not by celebrating the state of permawar that has existed for 75 years, but by reading The Golden Age by Gore Vidal and marking with a certain Joycean irony the golden age of anti-isolationist imperial mass-killing that has encompassed the lives of every U.S. citizen under the age of 75.
Golden Age Day should include public readings of Vidal’s novel and the glowing endorsements of it by the Washington Post, New York Times Book Review, and every other corporate paper in the year 2000, also known as the year 1 BWT (before the war on terra). Not a single one of those newspapers has ever, to my knowledge, printed a serious straightforward analysis of how President Franklin D. Roosevelt maneuvered the United States into World War II. Yet Vidal’s novel — presented as fiction, yet resting entirely on documented facts — recounts the story with total honesty, and somehow the genre used or the author’s pedigree or his literary skill or the length of the book (too many pages for senior editors to be bothered with) grants him a license to tell the truth.
Sure, some people have read The Golden Age and protested its impropriety, but it remains a respectable high-brow volume. I may be hurting the cause by openly writing about its content. The trick, which I highly recommend to all, is to give or recommend the book to others withouttelling them what’s in it.
Despite a filmmaker being a main character in the book, it’s not been made into a film, as far as I know — but a widespread phenomenon of public readings could conceivably make that happen.
In The Golden Age, we follow along inside all the closed doors, as the British push for U.S. involvement in World War II, as President Roosevelt makes a commitment to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, as the warmongers manipulate the Republican convention to make sure that both parties nominate candidates in 1940 ready to campaign on peace while planning war, as FDR longs to run for an unprecedented third term as a wartime president but must content himself with beginning a draft and campaigning as a drafttime president in a time of supposed national danger, and as FDR works to provoke Japan into attacking on his desired schedule.
The echoes are eerie. Roosevelt campaigns on peace (“except in case of attack”), like Wilson, like Johnson, like Nixon, like Obama. Roosevelt, pre-election, puts in Henry Stimson as a war-eager Secretary of War not altogether unlike Donald Trump nominees.
World War Two Was Not a Just War
World War II is often called “the good war,” and has been since the U.S. war on Vietnam to which it was then contrasted. World War II so dominates U.S. and therefore Western entertainment and education, that “good” often comes to mean something more than “just.”
The winner of the 2016 “Miss Italy” beauty pageant got herself into a bit of a scandal by declaring that she would have liked to live through World War II. While she was mocked, she was clearly not alone. Many would like to be part of something widely depicted as noble, heroic, and exciting. Should they actually find a time machine, I recommend they read the statements of some actual WWII veterans and survivors before they head back to join the fun.
No matter how many years one writes books, does interviews, publishes columns, and speaks at events, it remains virtually impossible to make it out the door of an event in the United States at which you’ve advocated abolishing war without somebody hitting you with the what-about-the-good-war question. This belief that there was a good war 75 years ago is a large part of what moves the U.S. public to tolerate dumping a trillion dollars a year into preparing in case there’s a good war next year, even in the face of so many dozens of wars during the past 71 years on which there’s general consensus that they were not good. Without rich, well-established myths about World War II, current propaganda about Russia or Syria or Iraq or China would sound as crazy to most people as it sounds to me. And of course the funding generated by the Good War legend leads to more bad wars, rather than preventing them. I’ve written on this topic at great length in many articles and books, especially War Is A Lie. But I’ll offer here a few key points that ought to at least place a few seeds of doubt in the minds of most U.S. supporters of WWII as a Just War.
World War II could not have happened without World War I, without the stupid manner of starting World War I and the even stupider manner of ending World War I which led numerous wise people to predict World War II on the spot, or without Wall Street’s funding of Nazi Germany for decades (as preferable to communists), or without the arms race and numerous bad decisions that do not need to be repeated in the future.
The war was not humanitarian and was not even marketed as such until after it was over. There was no poster asking you to help Uncle Sam save the Jews. A ship of Jewish refugees from Germany was chased away from Miami by the Coast Guard. The U.S. and other nations refused to accept Jewish refugees, and the majority of the U.S. public supported that position. Peace groups that questioned Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his foreign secretary about shipping Jews out of Germany to save them were told that, while Hitler might very well agree to the plan, it would be too much trouble and require too many ships. The U.S. engaged in no diplomatic or military effort to save the victims in the Nazi concentration camps. Anne Frank was denied a U.S. visa.
Although this point has nothing to do with a serious historian’s case for WWII as a Just War, it is so central to U.S. mythology that I’ll include here a key passage from Nicholson Baker:
“Anthony Eden, Britain’s foreign secretary, who’d been tasked by Churchill with handling queries about refugees, dealt coldly with one of many important delegations, saying that any diplomatic effort to obtain the release of the Jews from Hitler was ‘fantastically impossible.’ On a trip to the United States, Eden candidly told Cordell Hull, the secretary of state, that the real difficulty with asking Hitler for the Jews was that ‘Hitler might well take us up on any such offer, and there simply are not enough ships and means of transportation in the world to handle them.’ Churchill agreed. ‘Even were we to obtain permission to withdraw all the Jews,’ he wrote in reply to one pleading letter, ‘transport alone presents a problem which will be difficult of solution.’ Not enough shipping and transport? Two years earlier, the British had evacuated nearly 340,000 men from the beaches of Dunkirk in just nine days. The U.S. Air Force had many thousands of new planes. During even a brief armistice, the Allies could have airlifted and transported refugees in very large numbers out of the German sphere.”
The “good” side of the war simply did not give a damn about what would become the central example of the badness of the “bad” side of the war.
The war was not defensive. A case can be made that the U.S. needed to enter the war in Europe to defend other nations, which had entered to defend yet other nations, but a case could also be made that the U.S. escalated the targeting of civilians, extended the war, and inflicted more damage than might have occurred, had the U.S. done nothing, attempted diplomacy, or invested in nonviolence. To claim that a Nazi empire could have grown to someday include an occupation of the United States is wildly far fetched and not borne out by any earlier or later examples from other wars.
We now know much more widely and with much more data that nonviolent resistance to occupation and injustice is more likely to succeed—and that success more likely to last—than violent resistance. With this knowledge, we can look back at the stunning successes of nonviolent actions against the Nazis that were not well organized or built on beyond their initial successes.
The Good War was not good for the troops. Lacking intense modern training and psychological conditioning to prepare soldiers to engage in the unnatural act of murder, some 80 percent of U.S. and other troops in World War II did not fire their weapons at “the enemy.” The fact that veterans of WWII were treated better after the war than other soldiers before or since, was the result of the pressure created by the Bonus Army after the previous war. That veterans were given free college, healthcare, and pensions was not due to the merits of the war or in some way a result of the war. Without the war, everyone could have been given free college for many years. If we provided free college to everyone today, it would then require much more than Hollywoodized World War II stories to get many people into military recruiting stations.
Several times the number of people killed in German camps were killed outside of them in the war. The majority of those people were civilians. The scale of the killing, wounding, and destroying made WWII the single worst thing humanity has ever done to itself in a short space of time. We imagine the allies were somehow “opposed” to the far lesser killing in the camps. But that can’t justify the cure that was worse than the disease.
Escalating the war to include the all-out destruction of civilians and cities, culminating in the completely indefensible nuking of cities took WWII out of the realm of defensible projects for many who had defended its initiation. Demanding unconditional surrender and seeking to maximize death and suffering did immense damage and left a grim and foreboding legacy.
Killing huge numbers of people is supposedly defensible for the “good” side in a war, but not for the “bad” side. The distinction between the two is never as stark as fantasized. The United States had a long history as an apartheid state. U.S. traditions of oppressing African Americans, practicing genocide against Native Americans, and now interning Japanese Americans also gave rise to specific programs that inspired Germany’s Nazis—these included camps for Native Americans, and programs of eugenics and human experimentation that existed before, during, and after the war.
One of these programs included giving syphilis to people in Guatemala at the same time the Nuremberg trials were taking place. The U.S. military hired hundreds of top Nazis at the end of the war; they fit right in. The U.S. aimed for a wider world empire, before the war, during it, and ever since. German neo- Nazis today, forbidden to wave the Nazi flag, sometimes wave the flag of the Confederate States of America instead.
The “good” side of the “good war,” the party that did most of the killing and dying for the winning side, was the communist Soviet Union. That doesn’t make the war a triumph for communism, but it does tarnish Washington’s and Hollywood’s tales of triumph for “democracy.”
World War II still hasn’t ended. Ordinary people in the United States didn’t have their incomes taxed until World War II and that’s never stopped. It was supposed to be temporary. WWII-era bases built around the world have never closed. U.S. troops have never left Germany or Japan. There are more than 100,000 U.S. and British bombs still in the ground in Germany, still killing.
Going back 75 years to a nuclear-free, colonial world of completely different structures, laws, and habits to justify what has been the greatest expense of the United States in each of the years since is a bizarre feat of self-deception that isn’t attempted in the justification of any lesser enterprise. Assume I’ve got everything else totally wrong, and you’ve still got to explain how an event from the early 1940s justifies dumping a trillion 2017 dollars into war funding that could have been spent to feed, clothe, cure, and shelter millions of people, and to environmentally protect the earth.