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On Iraq, déjà vu all over again?

Most of the conflicts fought by both nations in the past century were preceded by distortions, propaganda and, in some cases, outright fabrications aimed at stoking public support for war. Analysis. By Michael Moran.
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Accusations are flying in Washington and London over the manipulation of prewar intelligence, with many Democrats in the United States and much of the British public now convinced that their respective governments pushed for a war in Iraq for reasons other than the “clear and present danger” Saddam Hussein’s regime allegedly represented. As these issues are increasingly politicized, it bears mentioning that most of the conflicts fought by both nations in the past century were preceded by distortions, propaganda and, in some cases, outright fabrications aimed at stoking public support for war.

Why, of course, the people don’t want to go to war. But, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders.... All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

No, those are not the words of some Berkeley professor or Fabian socialist in Tony Blair’s party. That is a quote from Hermann Goering, the Nazi air marshal, during his interrogation at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. While the propaganda Goering referenced is far beyond anything perpetrated by a Western democracy since the 19th century, propaganda itself, dressed in more acceptable clothing, lives on.


The debate over the politicization of intelligence data is a vital sign of life in America’s democracy, which throughout its history has endured propaganda campaigns and curbs on civil liberties when Washington deemed there to be a serious threat to national security. In each instance, there followed a backlash and a reassessment — the repeal of the Sedition Act of 1918, the compensation of Japanese-Americans imprisoned during World War II, or more subtle reckonings like “In Retrospect,” Robert S. McNamara’s astounding mea culpa for his role in pursuing the Vietnam War as defense secretary in the Johnson and Kennedy administrations.

A more contemporary example: The Gulf War, once presented as an unblemished victory of U.S. leadership, looks quite different in retrospect now that the Gulf War leader’s son, 12 years later, has felt compelled to finish the job.

It is far too early to foretell the outcome of the snap reassessments being conducted on prewar Iraq policy. The discovery of weapons of mass destruction, still an entirely possible scenario, may vindicate the administration. A few more revelations of overly optimistic assessments of Saddam’s arsenal, combined with the daily slayings of young U.S. troops, could deliver a very different verdict. One thing is certain, however: If the Bush administration distorted intelligence or even fabricated evidence in an effort to build public support for the Iraq war, it would be more the rule than the exception to the way wars have been launched since 1898.


The great exception to this rule — and the one that all presidents seek, eventually, to reference as a precedent for their own conflicts — is World War II. Not that there was any lack of ugly racial stereotyping of the Japanese or unheeded warnings about the gathering genocide being planned in Berlin.

But, racism aside, the 1939-45 war so raised (or lowered) the bar for what humans might do to their fellow creatures that prewar propaganda more often fell short of reality than exaggerated it.

Before World War II and since, however, the politically charged months and weeks just before the eruption of combat produced some whoppers that go far beyond the rather technical contemporary accusation of “politicized intelligence.”

Perhaps the most egregious case in modern U.S. history is the Spanish-American War, a conflict that conveniently left the United States with a collection of colonies that neatly suited its need for naval coaling stations in the Caribbean and Pacific. The war’s primary public motivator, the February 1898 sinking of the battleship USS Maine in Havana harbor, was blamed by President William McKinley on Cuba’s colonial ruler, Spain. Newspapers quickly took up the case, splashing their front pages with headlines about alleged Spanish atrocities and urging Americans to “Remember the Maine!” Serious doubts have since been raised about that charge, and even the U.S. Navy’s official Web site concedes that the cause remains “elusive.”

InsertArt(1958341)A more recent example comes from the administration of Lyndon Johnson, the Democrat who asked Congress in the summer of 1964 to give him the power to take military action against North Vietnam. Citing an allegedly unprovoked attack against U.S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin, Congress did just that, with loopholes so large that by 1968 nearly 500,000 U.S. troops were in Vietnam, more than 50,000 of whom would never return.

The administration’s decision to use the attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin to win war powers long has been controversial. Most historians agree the first of two attacks was genuine, and the second might also have occurred. But the issue was not that simple. In fact, as McNamara notes, in January 1964, the White House had green-lighted CIA infiltrations into North Vietnam, many of which passed through the Gulf of Tonkin. This is information neither the Congress nor the U.S. public had to judge North Vietnamese motives.

In McNamara’s own words: “Was the Johnson administration justified in basing its subsequent military actions in Vietnam — including an enormous expansion of force levels—on the Tonkin Gulf Resolution? Answer: Absolutely not.”


InsertArt(1958344)The 20th century also included many examples of good, old-fashioned slanders used to justify the dispatch of troops to foreign shores. Following the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, for instance, the administration of the first President George Bush sought to build support for U.S. action in Congress and among the public by highlighting the atrocities that Iraqi troops committed in occupied Kuwait. Rather than citing substantiated reports from groups like Amnesty International, however, they orchestrated a hearing on Capitol Hill at which a witness, identified only as “Nayirah,” allegedly to protect her sources, claimed to have witnessed Iraqi soldiers pulling “thousands” of Kuwaiti newborns from incubators and leaving them to die. She turned out to have been the daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador to Washington and hardly a witness to anything.

President Clinton’s administration fell prey to similar enthusiasms during the Kosovo conflict, most notably when State Department spokesman Jamie Rubin passed on a false claim from Kosovo rebels that Serbs had rounded up thousands of Muslims in a Pristina football stadium in apparent preparation to slaughter them. Images of the stadium obtained soon afterward showed it completely empty.


The “stadium” and “incubator” stories drew on deep precedents. Back in 1917, when the United States finally entered World War I, the conflict had been raging for more than two years. Several incidents, including the 1915 sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania, carrying 1,100 passengers and crew, including 128 Americans, would seem to have prepared the ground for America’s entry.

Nonetheless, U.S. public opinion remained badly split on the war, with burgeoning populations of anti-British Irish- and German-Americans pointing out that the European powers had not, in spite of President Woodrow Wilson’s rhetoric, gone to war “to make the world safe for democracy.”

To counter this sentiment, Wilson set up the Committee for Public Information, which soon disseminated tales (later found to be false) of German soldiers skewering hundreds of babies with their bayonets, collecting eyeballs in a bathtub and even eating the entrails of their enemies. British and French propaganda fed the fire.

The committee’s work paid quick dividends in the United States, though, according to Aaron Delwiche, a communications professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.

For instance, the City University of New York reduced by one credit every course in German. German language newspapers were banned, especially in Chicago, Milwaukee and Cleveland, cities that had enormous German-American populations. In fact, 14 states banned the speaking of German in public schools. Dachshunds became “liberty dogs.” German measles became “liberty measles,” Delwiche says.

Sound familiar?