At The American Conservative, Robert W. Merry, whom I like very much, uses his deep historical knowledge, especially of the World Wars, to explain past presidential lies that brought America into conflicts. Merry compares those with the recent statements of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the secretary’s unquestioning belief that Iran was the recent attacker of two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Merry writes (abridged):
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says there’s no question that Iran initiated the recent attacks on those two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. The evidence, he says, is “indisputable” and “unmistakable.” President Donald Trump weighs in with the same degree of certainty. “Well, Iran did do it,” he told Fox News.
Maybe. But our past is screaming at us: don’t buy it; you can’t trust your leaders when war fever sets in and war prospects are on the rise. Consider the history surrounding the run-ups to the Mexican War, World War I, World War II, Vietnam, and the Iraq war. Lies, misrepresentations, and manipulations abound in all those episodes.
As for those tankers, where’s the evidence?
James K. Polk and the Mexican War: Contrary to allegations that have dogged the 11th president for nearly 180 years, it isn’t quite true to say that he lied. But he did declare to the nation that Mexico had “spilled American blood on the American soil.” The problem is that it wasn’t, strictly speaking, American soil.
South Carolina’s Senator John C. Calhoun among others, would have none of it. This skirmish, he said, was a “mere local conflict, not authorized by either government,” and it was “monstrous” to blow it up into a doctrine that “every American is [now] an enemy of every Mexican.
Woodrow Wilson and World War, I: There can be no doubt that Wilson was reelected president in 1916 (with just 49.2 percent of the vote) on his stated resolve to keep America out of Europe’s Great War.
But it was all phony, as he’d always hankered to get America onto the world stage.
It wasn’t easy keeping the United States out of the war through the election season, given delicate neutrality issues forced upon the U.S. by both Britain and Germany. Britain imposed a blockade designed to thwart all trade to Germany and the Central Powers and to” starve the whole population—men, women, and children, old and young, wounded and sound—into submission,” as Britain’s pugnacious First Sea Lord, Winston Churchill, brazenly declared.
Wilson initially sought to wend his way through this neutrality thicket, rendered all the more difficult after Germany initiated submarine attacks designed to stop munitions shipments to Britain and counteract the blockade. But ultimately, he favored the UK and took actions he knew would draw America into the war.
He not only observed the British blockade but also allowed armed British merchant ships entry to U.S. ports, which in turn fostered a flow of American munitions to the Allied Powers. At the same time, Wilson declared that Germany would be held to a “strict accountability” for any American loss of life or property from German submarine attacks designed to enforce the neutrality that Wilson was flouting.
Wilson’s secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, warned the president that he faced a stark choice: either adopt a more evenhanded approach or accept the inevitability of war. Bryan ultimately resigned over the issue, and he turned out to be right.
A desperate Germany, suffering horrendously under Churchill’s starvation policy, initiated unrestricted submarine warfare against ships carrying goods to Britain or France. Wilson promptly asked for a congressional declaration of war—and got it.
Franklin Roosevelt and World War II: When Europe was once again thrust into a dark conflict after Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, FDR almost desperately wished to take America in.
But the country, still stung by the bitter fruits of Wilson’s previous intervention, didn’t want to enter the fray.
“I am almost literally walking on eggs,” Roosevelt wrote to a foreign official, explaining the precarious perch between his own powerful conviction and the public’s aversion to war. “I am at the moment saying nothing, seeing nothing, and hearing nothing.”
But this wasn’t quite true. He was applying his stealth and wiles in every way possible to help Britain and nudge his country to warm
He passed diplomatic secrets to friendly reporters to help the cause. He initiated secret depth charge attacks on German submarines in the North Atlantic.
As Robert Shjogan writes in his book Hard Bargain, FDR almost certainly violated the prevailing Neutrality Acts by making destroyers available to Britain—an action that in another time and political climate could have been impeachable.
And he maneuvered Japan into a position of near desperation in an effort to force a confrontation.
That he knew what he was doing is evidenced by the fact that he initiated planning for the removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast even before Pearl Harbor, as John Toland reveals in his 1982 book Infamy. Shogan writes that FDR didn’t hesitate “to twist the law, flout the Constitution, hoodwink the public, and distort the political process.”
Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam war: On August 2, 1964, North Vietnamese PT boats attacked the U.S.S. Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. This could not have surprised those in the know inside the U.S. government.
The Maddox had been providing logistical and electronic surveillance support to South Vietnamese forces engaged in raiding parties on North Vietnamese soil. Two days later, when it seemed another attack on the Maddox had ensued, President Johnson snapped into action. He asked for a congressional resolution authorizing him to counter such raids with military action as needed. This allowed Johnson to prosecute what became America’s disastrous seven-year Vietnam war.
Read more here.
Read my series on the Worst Presidents in American History here.