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 Land of the What? 

June 3, 2004 
I enjoy movies about World War II, especially those made during the war itself. I think it’s silly to talk about the men who fought it as “the greatest generation,” Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.but they were my father’s generation and I love the style of manhood they represent — the unassuming masculinity of an older America, responsible rather than macho.

What the war movies don’t show — and what they wouldn’t have been allowed to show if they’d wanted to — was the deceit by which Franklin Roosevelt tried to bring on the war. The historian Robert Dallek writes, “In light of the national unwillingness to face up fully to the international dangers facing the country, it is difficult to fault Roosevelt for building a consensus by devious means.” This is the view of most older historians: We forced Roosevelt to lie to us for our own good.

Still, Dallek concedes, “For all the need [!] to mislead the country in its own interest [!], the President’s deviousness also injured the national well-being in the long run. His [secret provocation of Germany] created a precedent for manipulation of public opinion which would be repeated by later Presidents in less justifiable [!] circumstances.” Roosevelt also used the FBI to spy on political opponents with illegal wiretaps and interceptions of their mail.

As Edmund Burke put it, “Criminal means, once tolerated, are soon preferred.” But it didn’t start with Roosevelt. Deceiving the American public into war already had a long history.

[Breaker quote: The familiar recipe for war]In 1845, President James Polk falsely accused Mexico of attacking the United States, thus using his office to initiate a war of conquest. Congress went along with him. Among the few who opposed him was a courageous freshman congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, who demanded proof that Mexico had really been the aggressor. Polk ignored him, Lincoln was branded a traitor, and when Lincoln lost his seat after only one term, his political career appeared to be over.

Unfortunately, Lincoln drew the wrong lesson from Polk’s success: He learned that a president can get away with anything in wartime. When, after an amazing comeback, he became president himself, he made war on the seceding states and crushed criticism and political opposition in the North with thousands of arbitrary arrests, including that of a congressman who opposed him as bravely as he had once opposed Polk. He had to misrepresent the Constitution in order to violate it as freely as he did. And of course when the Confederacy fired on Fort Sumter (total fatalities: one horse), he had the inflammatory incident he needed.

In 1898, President William McKinley whipped up war fever against Spain over Cuba. Spain had neither attacked nor threatened the United States and was in fact so eager to avoid war that it tried desperately to appease McKinley. But when the American battleship the USS Maine blew up in Havana harbor, probably by accident, McKinley had the pretext he needed. War was on, and it was quickly expanded all the way to the Phillippines, which the United States grabbed on the pretext of establishing democracy there. With Spain defeated, this “democratization” required the bloody suppression of a genuine independence movement. (Sound familiar?)

So the United States had already become an imperial power, sending its forces around the globe, by the time Woodrow Wilson schemed to get the United States into World War I on the British side against Germany, while professing to maintain neutrality and “keep us out of war.” He got his pretext for hostilities when German submarines attacked American merchant ships carrying — in violation of his proclaimed neutrality — munitions to England. An eager learner from his duplicitous and successful methods was his young assistant secretary of the navy, Franklin Roosevelt.

And so it has gone, through World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, not to mention Grenada and Panama. Typically, Americans are warned of a “threat” from a country that would be either very rash or out of its mind to attack us, usually followed by a suspicious incident that seems to justify the warning.

How many times must we fall for the same old tricks? The recurrent pattern is so striking that it suggests that this will never be the Land of the Free until it ceases being the Land of the Gullible.

Joseph Sobran

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