Historical Precedents for U.S. Support of Mass Murder and Ethnic Cleansing

President Joe Biden appears exceptional when it comes to the degree of personal loyalty he gives to an ethically questionable ideal (the Zionist ideal of a Jewish state), despite its inhumane consequences (the disregard for Palestinian lives). We might assume the possibility that, now confronted with an Israeli policy of mass murder in the Gaza Strip, Mr. Biden would start feeling conflicted—that is begin experiencing cognitive dissonance over the arming of a nation “plausibly” involved in the commission of genocide. Cognitive dissonance is, “the discomfort a person feels when their behavior [say, supplying offensive weapons used for mass murder] does not align with one’s [assumed] values or beliefs [mass murder is never a good thing].” Keep in mind that, eventually, this discomfort can be circumvented as one embraces one side of the contradiction and rationalizes away the other. This might be the case with Joe Biden as he persists in perceiving Israeli actions as “defensive.”

This is all very awkward for President Biden and has a potentially big political cost. So he has to wear his alleged discomfort on his sleeve, so to speak. Thus, there are numerous reports of how frustrated, even angry, he is with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Jack Mirkinson, writing in The Nation, lists over a dozen reports telling us that the relationship between Biden and Netanyahu is tense, fraught, critical, strained, frustrating, etc. Mirkinson’s assessment is that Biden must be reaching the outer limits as to how ticked off, out of patience, and tense a person can be without combusting. But anyone who has paid even a modest amount of attention to what is really happening can see right through this stuff….In the real world, Biden and his legislative partners have continued to arm Israel … . In the real world, Biden has blocked efforts for a permanent cease-fire at the United Nations and refuses to put any public pressure on Israel to help implement one.”

Here is a sample scenario: On 9 February 2024, “Joe Biden acknowledged the widespread humanitarian catastrophe caused by Israel’s war on the besieged Gaza Strip, saying ‘it’s gotta stop.’” Then on 11 February, Biden told Netanyahu  that “urgent and specific” steps should be taken on “humanitarian aid.” Netanyahu seems to have ignored both of these requests. On 20 February, Biden’s response was to instruct his ambassador at the United Nations to veto a Security Council resolution for a permanent cease-fire.

Who takes Biden’s regrets about the carnage in Gaza seriously? Not Netanyahu, not the Arab and Muslim American voters coast to coast, not Francesca Albanese, the UN Special Rapporteur for Palestinians. On 19 February, she put the contradiction succinctly, “How can US gov’s concern for the safety of Palestinians in Gaza be taken seriously when the same gov concomitantly plans to send more weapons to ISR [Israel] and block the demand for ceasefire at the Security Council?” The answer is that fewer and fewer Americans—among those paying attention to this issue—can take Biden’ commiserations with the Palestinians seriously,  and probably more and more of them are becoming embarrassed and/or very angry about apparently disingenuous hand-wringing over Israel’s murderous behavior.

Biden’s behavior is reprehensible. However, is it exceptional in the behavior of American presidents? Actually, it is not. And what about the effort to somehow rationalize away cognitive dissonance? Biden is certainly not unique in this either. Engaging in reprehensible behavior which contradicts stated U.S. principles has happened before in American history.

Some Historical Examples 

Let’s take a look at some of Biden’s predecessors taking ethically problematic actions.

Andrew Jackson and the Indian Removal Act of 1830

Jackson, the 7th president of the U.S., saw native Americans as aborigines who could not be assimilated into white society, and were therefore a roadblock to “progress.” In the late 1820s he, along with many of the southern U.S. states, particularly Georgia, hatched a scheme to ethnically cleanse land east of the Mississippi River of all “savage tribes.” As a result, some 60,000 Native Americans were forcibly moved west by the U.S. Army. Many were allowed to die from hardship along the way.

Jackson believed his policy was necessary for the U.S. to “progress.” It did not matter that some of the Indian tribes like the Cherokee had largely adopted white American culture and law. Blinding himself by assuming extreme alternatives, he proclaimed, “What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms … occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people … ?”

Woodrow Wilson and the resegregation of the U.S. government (1913)

Woodrow Wilson was by culture an antebellum southerner. He was born in Virginia and raised in Georgia. He was taught to view African Americans as inferior. Thus, upon taking office in 1913, one of the first things he did was to re-segregate the government bureaucracy and the military. Oswald Garrison Villard, a white journalist and civil rights activist at the time, remarked on Wilson’s racism and reactionary policies. He said that Wilson had a “distinct hostility to the colored people,” and that “to the colored workers all this segregating has been more brutal than a slap in the face. It is as if the great Government of the United States had gone out of its way to stamp them publicly as lepers, as physically and morally contagious and unfit for association with white people.”

Essentially, based on his personal prejudices, Wilson (whose racism reminds one of Andrew Jackson) was willing to turn back the clock for an entire country that was fitfully moving away from its segregationist history. All the while presenting himself as a promoter of political and economic freedom.

Lyndon Johnson and the abandonment of the U.S. naval ship Liberty (1967)

During the Six Day War of June 1967, Israel knowingly attacked a U.S. naval reconnaissance ship in international waters off the coast of the Gaza Strip. The attack killed 34 U.S. sailors and wounded 173 others. The probable cause for the attack was an ill-conceived scheme to draw the U.S. into the war on Israel’s side (see Joan Mellen, Blood in the Water).

In a true precedent to Joe Biden’s misplaced faith in the U.S.-Israeli relationship, the reaction of President Lyndon B. Johnson to being told of the attack was to conclude that “his chief responsibility was to protect Israel from harm and criticism.” Therefore, he recalled U.S. fighter aircraft that had been sent to defend the Liberty.

Did Johnson ever have second thoughts about this decision? Any cognitive dissonance? If so, there is no evidence of it. Thus, “after the assault, Johnson … took immediate steps to protect Israel from any public protest that might arise. He quickly accepted Israel’s excuse of mistaken identity, which his administration knew to be false. He ordered an immediate Navy Court of Inquiry but instructed the chairman, Admiral Isaac Kidd, to absolve Israel of guilt. …The president also ordered Kidd to keep survivors from talking about their ordeal … by threatening the sailors with court martial and imprisonment if they said anything publicly.”

Like Biden, Lyndon Johnson had been educated by family and his Christian faith to see Israel as a God-blessed country. Also, like Biden, he had been tutored to have a pro-Zionist outlook during the early years of his political career. Finally, Johnson was born and raised as a Texan, and identified Israelis with an alleged rugged Texas character. He was a confirmed Zionist until the day he died.

George W. Bush and invasion/occupation of Iraq (2003 – 2011) 

Like President Johnson before him and Joe Biden after, President George W. Bush was raised to see the world in a culturally, religiously, and politically specific way. For instance, he would have us believe that “God told me to end the tyranny in Iraq,” This turned out to be the perfect fallback position once it became clear that all of his other claims, such as Iraq’s possession of nuclear weapons, support for Al-Qaida, and the country’s alleged involvement in the 9/11 attacks were false.

Despite massive domestic opposition to the invasion, Bush pushed ahead with his war plans. In his own mind, he appeared to counterbalance popular opposition and lack of direct evidence for his accusations with the so-called intelligence being passed to the administration by Iraqi ex-patriots. These exiles were so determined to bring down Saddam Hussein that they found it acceptable to mislead the U.S. government. Bush in turn was so determined to transform Iraq into an American outpost in the Middle East that he chose to credit the word of the Iraqi expats over his own internal, institutional sources of intelligence. Ultimately, Bush would blame the invasion and failed occupation, which killed up to a million Iraqis, on “faulty intelligence.”

The list offered here is certainly not exhaustive. In modern times, one could have included Reagan and the brutality of the Contras; Nixon/Kissinger and the military massacres in Chile; and Ford/Kissinger and the massacres in East Timor, and more.

The Superior and the Inferior

The amount of cognitive dissidence experienced by these presidents cannot be known for sure. However, it may well have been little to none. All of them were products of an American society that was/is culturally biased enough to believe that some groups are superior to others whose futures were of little account. Jackson saw native Americans as inferior and seems to have been unmoved by the hardships of their mass deportation; Wilson saw African Americans as inferior, a status he also ascribed to the Germans when compared to the British; Johnson believed the Israelis were a special people very much like Texans (and thus superior), to be admired and supported; Bush believed U.S. political culture was far superior and the political culture of the Arabs and Iraq dangerously inferior. Thus, the latter had to be forced, by conquest, to adopt the political ways of the former.

In each of the above cases, it was the interests of the supposed superior groups that defined these leaders’ decisions and policies. The situation appears to be no different when it comes to President Joe Biden. His worldview (much like that of Lyndon Johnson) ascribes special, superior status to the Israelis. In comparison, the needs and interests of the Palestinians are inferior. Indeed, violent resistance to Israeli oppression becomes, in Biden’s view, “pure evil.” He has noted Israel’s “over the top” tactics only late into their invasion of Gaza (an observation that can be made for the West generally) and probably dismisses what the ICJ designates as “plausible genocide” as a reasonable consequence of Israeli domestic anger over the October 7 Hamas attack. Having such an overriding perspective may well hold at bay cognitive dissonance. In other words, Joe Biden’s worldview, which makes him complicit with acts of racially-generated barbarity, is not unique.


It might be noted that the worldviews of the first three presidents cited above were ones not contradicted by international laws. The consequence of repeated breakdown and horror in international relations led to the signing of post-World War II treaties and international rules that subsequently apply to the behavior of the United States and Israel. Ironically, Israel has never taken these laws seriously because they get in the way with their ethnocentric political and territorial goals. In this they have acted as a barrier to an international world trying to govern itself by the rule of law (see my essay “How We Got To An Era of De-Civilization”). In this the United States has long sided with the reactionaries.

That might become harder for the U.S. to do in the Israeli case in a post-Biden/Trump era. Enough American voters may be finding the carnage in Gaza so unacceptable of an ally that American administrations will find it too politically costly to support Israel’s continued ethnic cleansing. But then memories will start to fade (unless the Israelis repeatedly reinforce them) and the special interest money offered by American Zionists will continue to be spread about like bait. Fading memories of horrors and the rich bribes of special interests are one of the best combinations to induce policymakers into making bad mistakes over and over again—especially when not-white-enough people are the ones denied their human rights. Surely, American politicians will eventually be tempted to take that bait once more.

Lawrence Davidson is a retired professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.