Mises Daily Articles
The Long History of Lies for War
[The Ruses for War: American Interventionism Since World War II. By John B. Quigley. Prometheus Books, 2007. 433 pgs.]
John Quigley's book has a valuable main thesis and, I suggest, an even more valuable claim that underlies this thesis. The purpose of his book, Quigley tells us, is to explore "U.S. military actions abroad over the past half-century. We look in each instance at what the president and his aides said, and what reasons they gave. Then we examine the situation in light of what is known today to determine whether the administration was truthful" (pp. 14–15).
Quigley, an authority on international law, examines around thirty cases, beginning with the Korean War and ending with Iraq, where the United States has used force. In each instance, he shows, the administration's account has been blatantly false. Often, e.g., it is claimed that we must intervene to protect American citizens at risk in a foreign crisis; but it turns out that almost all of these Americans have left the scene before our expeditionary forces arrive.
In our farcical invasion of Grenada in 1983, the administration maintained that it needed to protect American medical students from warring factions of the leftist party in power. The students had not been harmed; the administration "could not a present a logical explanation why the Grenadan government might take hostages"; and when the "rescue" force arrived, it ignored the students.
But our author seems here open to an objection. Perhaps the public cannot grasp power politics. Only experienced statesmen, wise in the intricacies of diplomacy, can guide our country. If necessary the emotionally driven public must be deceived for its own good. Arthur Sylvester, Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy Administration, in 1962 said "that in crisis situations, he believed in 'the inherent right of the Government to lie.' He spoke of lying euphemistically as 'generation' of news, and said that 'news management' was 'part of the arsenal of weaponry' of government" (p. 380).
Here precisely the underlying claim of Quigley's book enters the scene. He shows, for case after case, that the president and his cohorts did not act to protect America from danger. Quite the contrary, the administration manufactured crises on flimsy pretexts. Far from being Platonic Guardians who had caught sight of the Form of the Good, the ruling powers were bumblers with itchy trigger figures.
A new objection threatens to block our way. "No doubt," it may be said, "if one accepts Quigley's account of the various crises, his underlying claim follows: the US government has continually engaged in needless foreign interventions. But we should not accept what Quigley says. He is a leftist, always inclined to put the US in the wrong."
The objection fails. Quigley's understanding of the free market is less than ideal; and a few times, he does seem to me to view Communist foreign policy with undue sympathy. He contends, e.g., that Khrushchev's sending missiles to Cuba was a defensive move to forestall an American invasion. This may well be true, but Quigley does not say, as he should have, that the Russian action was a dangerously provocative move. Also, his statement that "Castro eventually did attach his star to the Kremlin, but it was never clear whether this resulted from Castro's rejecting us or our rejecting him" (p. 97) ignores evidence that Castro had been a convinced communist since the late 1940s. 1
There are, though, very few questionable statements in the vast array of material our author has amassed. And, much more important, Quigley's thesis does not depend on acceptance of his views of America's opponents, correct though he usually is. As he shows incontrovertibly, American policy makers acted before it became clear what our supposed enemy intended to do. Even, then, if one thinks that the United States did confront real threats, the bulk of Quigley's case remains intact.
A few examples will show the power of Quigley's analysis. The Korean War began shortly after June 25, 1950, when "the south reported an attack by the north and said fighting continued all across Korea along the [38th] parallel. The north claimed just the opposite. Pyongyang Radio announced that the the south 'started a surprise invasion of the north along the whole front of the 38th parallel line at dawn on the 25th'" (p. 31).
The United States did not wait until the situation became clear: instead, the Truman administration demanded from the UN Security Council authorization to repel the attack. In doing so, it ignored the fact that border skirmishes between the two Korean regimes had been going on months prior to June 1950. Further, Syngman Rhee, the unpopular South Korean leader, had every reason to invade. His government was unpopular, and only the crisis of war could stave off its replacement. (Quigley relies for his account of the war on Bruce Cumings, the leading American authority on the war, along with his own primary source research. Cumings in many respects confirmed the pioneering revisionist work of I.F. Stone, The Hidden History of the Korean War (New York, 1952), a book much esteemed by Murray Rothbard. Stone, though at the time an undoubted Communist sympathizer, was nevertheless an excellent researcher.)
Once more, Quigley's case does not depend on his account of Rhee's motives. Even if one assumes that North Korea was intent on conquest, it remains the case that the United States had no reliable evidence on which to base its charge of North Korean aggression. The Truman Administration's claims were, to use a phrase of Churchill's, "terminological inexactitudes," and its rush to judgment delayed for over two years a negotiated settlement of the dispute between the two Koreas. In like fashion, China entered the war only after deliberate attacks on hydroelectric plants in Korea that supplied Manchuria with power; and its forays into Korea were at first very tentative. The United States claimed without adequate basis that China intended to conquer Korea in order to bring it within the Communist world empire. In point of fact, the American Supreme Commander, Douglas MacArthur, aimed to induce a Chinese attack, since he had hopes of overturning the Communist Chinese government.
As if this were not enough, the United States made another deceptive claim. It contended that South Korea was the victim of international aggression. But even if the North had launched a full-scale invasion of the South at the instigation of the Chinese or Russians, the best case for the US position, the American claim would still have been false. North and South Korea were not at the time separate countries; the two regimes were merely in control of administrative zones, supposedly temporary. The conflict was then a civil war; but had the US thus characterized it, it would have been unable to get UN backing to repel a foreign invasion. Much better for its purposes, then, to lie. When US forces, prior to Chinese entry, routed the North Korean army, they refused to stop at the 38th parallel, on the grounds that this was not an international boundary. Korea was either one country or two, depending on what best served the Truman administration's purposes.
The pattern of mendacity has remained constant in the fifty years since Korea. Everyone knows the manner in which Bush lied us into the Iraq war, but the invasion of Afghanistan has gotten a much better press. Was it not necessary to overthrow the Taliban government, which provided sanctuary to Osama bin Laden? Quigley shows that this view rests on dubious assumptions.
First, when the United States demanded of Afghanistan the surrender of bin Laden, it ignored customary procedures of international law. "The normal international procedure for the surrender of a suspect is extradition. The government that seeks surrender provides information to show probable cause that the person sought committed a crime. A court in the country from which extradition is requested hears the evidence in open court and decides whether there is sufficient evidence that the accused person committed the crime in question. In requesting evidence, the Taliban was thus adhering to accepted international standards" (pp. 360–61).
Instead, the United States demanded that the Taliban surrender bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders without the customary procedures; when the Taliban did not comply invasion followed. The Taliban professed willingness to negotiate over the conditions for surrender of the suspects, but the US would not discuss its ultimatum. If the Taliban was not sincere, this could soon have been determined, but the US would not wait.
As Quigley aptly notes, military force is supposed to be the last resort in a crisis, not the first. One may add to Quigley's case that, accepting the American ultimatum at face value, force could rightly be used only to seize bin Laden and his cohorts. The US had no warrant for the Bush administration's catchphrase, "regime change." 2
As mentioned above, the administration's false claims about Iraq are common knowledge. Iraq had no WMD to threaten the United States at the time that Bush ordered an invasion; quite the contrary, Iraq had been crippled by repeated bombing raids and a blockade.
But even if Saddam Hussein posed no immediate threat, did he not show his malign intentions by attempting to have the first President Bush assassinated during a visit to Kuwait in 1993? In one of the book's most interesting chapters, Quigley shows that this assertion rests on dubious evidence. Secretary of State Albright told the UN Security Council that bombs found on the suspects had certain components available only in Iraq. Seymour Hersh showed the photographs of the bombs on which Albright relied in her presentation to seven independent explosives experts. They denied her claim; the circuitry on the devices was readily available and not of exclusive Iraqi provenance. The FBI chemist, one of the world's leading authorities, agreed with the independent experts, but his report was altered so that the Clinton administration could proceed with its plan to bomb Iraq.
Quigley's extensive survey of American policy is a most valuable resource for anyone interested in testing America's foreign policy claims against the historical record. 3
- 1. See, e.g., Nathaniel Weyl, Red Star Over Cuba (New York, 1961).
- 2. Quigley does not discuss claims that the Bush administration either had guilty knowledge of, or itself instigated, the 9/11 attacks. See, e.g., David Ray Griffin, The New Pearl Harbor, and my review in The Mises Review, Summer 2004. I find these claims hard to assess, as they in large part rest on technical details of which I lack knowledge.
- 3. The book maintains a high standard of accuracy, but I noted one mistake. Hiram Johnson was a senator from California, not Texas (p. 23).