March 31, 2006
April 2006 Issue
that most Americans no longer believe in the war, now that they no
longer trust Bush and his Administration, now that the evidence of
deception has become overwhelming (so overwhelming that even the major
media, always late, have begun to register indignation), we might ask:
How come so many people were so easily fooled?
The question is
important because it might help us understand why Americans—members of
the media as well as the ordinary citizen—rushed to declare their
support as the President was sending troops halfway around the world to
Iraq.A small example of the innocence (or obsequiousness, to be more
exact) of the press is the way it reacted to Colin Powell’s
presentation in February 2003 to the Security Council, a month before
the invasion, a speech which may have set a record for the number of
falsehoods told in one talk. In it, Powell confidently rattled off his
"evidence": satellite photographs, audio records, reports from
informants, with precise statistics on how many gallons of this and
that existed for chemical warfare. The New York Times was breathless
with admiration. The Washington Post editorial was titled "Irrefutable"
and declared that after Powell’s talk "it is hard to imagine how anyone
could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction."
seems to me there are two reasons, which go deep into our national
culture, and which help explain the vulnerability of the press and of
the citizenry to outrageous lies whose consequences bring death to tens
of thousands of people. If we can understand those reasons, we can
guard ourselves better against being deceived.
One is in the
dimension of time, that is, an absence of historical perspective. The
other is in the dimension of space, that is, an inability to think
outside the boundaries of nationalism. We are penned in by the arrogant
idea that this country is the center of the universe, exceptionally
virtuous, admirable, superior.
If we don’t know history, then we
are ready meat for carnivorous politicians and the intellectuals and
journalists who supply the carving knives. I am not speaking of the
history we learned in school, a history subservient to our political
leaders, from the much-admired Founding Fathers to the Presidents of
recent years. I mean a history which is honest about the past. If we
don’t know that history, then any President can stand up to the battery
of microphones, declare that we must go to war, and we will have no
basis for challenging him. He will say that the nation is in danger,
that democracy and liberty are at stake, and that we must therefore
send ships and planes to destroy our new enemy, and we will have no
reason to disbelieve him.
But if we know some history, if we
know how many times Presidents have made similar declarations to the
country, and how they turned out to be lies, we will not be fooled.
Although some of us may pride ourselves that we were never fooled, we
still might accept as our civic duty the responsibility to buttress our
fellow citizens against the mendacity of our high officials.
would remind whoever we can that President Polk lied to the nation
about the reason for going to war with Mexico in 1846. It wasn’t that
Mexico "shed American blood upon the American soil," but that Polk, and
the slave-owning aristocracy, coveted half of Mexico.
point out that President McKinley lied in 1898 about the reason for
invading Cuba, saying we wanted to liberate the Cubans from Spanish
control, but the truth is that we really wanted Spain out of Cuba so
that the island could be open to United Fruit and other American
corporations. He also lied about the reasons for our war in the
Philippines, claiming we only wanted to "civilize" the Filipinos, while
the real reason was to own a valuable piece of real estate in the far
Pacific, even if we had to kill hundreds of thousands of Filipinos to
President Woodrow Wilson—so often characterized in
our history books as an "idealist"—lied about the reasons for entering
the First World War, saying it was a war to "make the world safe for
democracy," when it was really a war to make the world safe for the
Western imperial powers.
Harry Truman lied when he said the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima because it was "a military target."
lied about Vietnam—Kennedy about the extent of our involvement, Johnson
about the Gulf of Tonkin, Nixon about the secret bombing of Cambodia,
all of them claiming it was to keep South Vietnam free of communism,
but really wanting to keep South Vietnam as an American outpost at the
edge of the Asian continent.
Reagan lied about the invasion of Grenada, claiming falsely that it was a threat to the United States.
The elder Bush lied about the invasion of Panama, leading to the death of thousands of ordinary citizens in that country.
he lied again about the reason for attacking Iraq in 1991—hardly to
defend the integrity of Kuwait (can one imagine Bush heartstricken over
Iraq’s taking ofKuwait?), rather to assert U.S. power in the oil-rich
Given the overwhelming record of lies told to
justify wars, how could anyone listening to the younger Bush believe
him as he laid out the reasons for invading Iraq? Would we not
instinctively rebel against the sacrifice of lives for oil?
careful reading of history might give us another safeguard against
being deceived. It would make clear that there has always been, and is
today, a profound conflict of interest between the government and the
people of the United States. This thought startles most people, because
it goes against everything we have been taught.
We have been led
to believe that, from the beginning, as our Founding Fathers put it in
the Preamble to the Constitution, it was "we the people" who
established the new government after the Revolution. When the eminent
historian Charles Beard suggested, a hundred years ago, that the
Constitution represented not the working people, not the slaves, but
the slaveholders, the merchants, the bondholders, he became the object
of an indignant editorial in The New York Times.
demands, in its very language, that we accept a commonality of interest
binding all of us to one another. We mustn’t talk about classes. Only
Marxists do that, although James Madison, "Father of the Constitution,"
said, thirty years before Marx was born that there was an inevitable
conflict in society between those who had property and those who did
Our present leaders are not so candid. They bombard us with
phrases like "national interest," "national security," and "national
defense" as if all of these concepts applied equally to all of us,
colored or white, rich or poor, as if General Motors and Halliburton
have the same interests as the rest of us, as if George Bush has the
same interest as the young man or woman he sends to war.
in the history of lies told to the population, this is the biggest lie.
In the history of secrets, withheld from the American people, this is
the biggest secret: that there are classes with different interests in
this country. To ignore that—not to know that the history of our
country is a history of slaveowner against slave, landlord against
tenant, corporation against worker, rich against poor—is to render us
helpless before all the lesser lies told to us by people in power.
we as citizens start out with an understanding that these people up
there—the President, the Congress, the Supreme Court, all those
institutions pretending to be "checks and balances"—do not have our
interests at heart, we are on a course towards the truth. Not to know
that is to make us helpless before determined liars.
ingrained belief—no, not from birth but from the educational system and
from our culture in general—that the United States is an especially
virtuous nation makes us especially vulnerable to government deception.
It starts early, in the first grade, when we are compelled to "pledge
allegiance" (before we even know what that means), forced to proclaim
that we are a nation with "liberty and justice for all."
then come the countless ceremonies, whether at the ballpark or
elsewhere, where we are expected to stand and bow our heads during the
singing of the "Star-Spangled Banner," announcing that we are "the land
of the free and the home of the brave." There is also the unofficial
national anthem "God Bless America," and you are looked on with
suspicion if you ask why we would expect God to single out this one
nation—just 5 percent of the world’s population—for his or her
blessing.If your starting point for evaluating the world around you is
the firm belief that this nation is somehow endowed by Providence with
unique qualities that make it morally superior to every other nation on
Earth, then you are not likely to question the President when he says
we are sending our troops here or there, or bombing this or that, in
order to spread our values—democracy, liberty, and let’s not forget
free enterprise—to some God-forsaken (literally) place in the world.It
becomes necessary then, if we are going to protect ourselves and our
fellow citizens against policies that will be disastrous not only for
other people but for Americans too, that we face some facts that
disturb the idea of a uniquely virtuous nation.
These facts are
embarrassing, but must be faced if we are to be honest. We must face
our long history of ethnic cleansing, in which millions of Indians were
driven off their land by means of massacres and forced evacuations. And
our long history, still not behind us, of slavery, segregation, and
racism. We must face our record of imperial conquest, in the Caribbean
and in the Pacific, our shameful wars against small countries a tenth
our size: Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, Iraq. And the
lingering memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is not a history of
which we can be proud.
Our leaders have taken it for granted,
and planted that belief in the minds of many people, that we are
entitled, because of our moral superiority, to dominate the world. At
the end of World War II, Henry Luce, with an arrogance appropriate to
the owner of Time, Life, and Fortune, pronounced this "the American
century," saying that victory in the war gave the United States the
right "to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for
such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit."
the Republican and Democratic parties have embraced this notion. George
Bush, in his Inaugural Address on January 20, 2005, said that spreading
liberty around the world was "the calling of our time." Years before
that, in 1993, President Bill Clinton, speaking at a West Point
commencement, declared: "The values you learned here . . . will be able
to spread throughout this country and throughout the world and give
other people the opportunity to live as you have lived, to fulfill your
What is the idea of our moral superiority
based on? Surely not on our behavior toward people in other parts of
the world. Is it based on how well people in the United States live?
The World Health Organization in 2000 ranked countries in terms of
overall health performance, and the United States was thirty-seventh on
the list, though it spends more per capita for health care than any
other nation. One of five children in this, the richest country in the
world, is born in poverty. There are more than forty countries that
have better records on infant mortality. Cuba does better. And there is
a sure sign of sickness in society when we lead the world in the number
of people in prison—more than two million.
A more honest
estimate of ourselves as a nation would prepare us all for the next
barrage of lies that will accompany the next proposal to inflict our
power on some other part of the world. It might also inspire us to
create a different history for ourselves, by taking our country away
from the liars and killers who govern it, and by rejecting nationalist
arrogance, so that we can join the rest of the human race in the common
cause of peace and justice.