Generations of Lies, Generations of Wars

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In 1916 my father was a graduate student in Washington, D.C. On election night, he stood outside the headquarters of the Democrat National Committee, leading a crowd that chanted,

“We want Peace, We don’t Want War! We want Wilson, Four Years More!”

Woodrow Wilson had attracted the support of my dad and his friends with his simple boast, “He kept us out of war.” When Wilson finally revealed, after his reelection, that he had actually intended to give us “the war to end all wars,” my father and his classmates did not dwell on Wilson’s prevarications. They dropped out of graduate school, joined the U.S. Army, and went off to the Great War.

Dad came back, thank God, an army captain. He taught history to work his way through Notre Dame law school, and started teaching law there in the early twenties. An avid Democrat in spite of Wilson’s lies, he worked for Roosevelt in Indiana during the 1930s. He supported FDR in 1940 because the president had repeatedly promised Americans that “your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”

In fact, my father had been one of the founders of the America First Committee, “formed to defend America by keeping the United States out of the European war.” (Clarence E. Manion, The Conservative American (1966), p. 39).

But the American warhawks have always been able cynically to manipulate the good will of the common people. Much as the majority of Americans might oppose war and the deceit that leads to it, they will fall in line and patriotically “support the troops” once combat is under way. My father’s account of the fate of America First after Pearl Harbor illustrates this dependable civic virtue of the American common man:

On December 11, 1941, the America First National Committee met in Chicago and dissolved the organization by formal resolution which read in part: “Our principles were right. Had they been followed, war could have been avoided. No good purpose can now be served by considering what might have been had our objectives been attained. We are at war. Today, though there may be many important subsidiary considerations, the primary objective is victory.” That being done, retired General Robert E. Wood, the National Chairman of America First, upon motion, gaveled the organization out of existence and left the meeting to rejoin the nation’s armed forces. The United States had a war to win. Subsidiary considerations, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, would have to wait. (Manion, p. 44)

Years later, as an Army ROTC student at Notre Dame, I defended the war in Viet Nam in public debates. Our 1968 yearbook devoted one page to a classmate’s attack on the war and one page to my defense of it. He praised Ho Chi Minh and condemned U.S. aggression; I quoted Douglas MacArthur and condemned Johnson’s weaseling. Five years earlier, president John F. Kennedy had already authorized the U.S.-engineered murder of President Diem, the democratically elected leader of South Viet Nam, our “ally.” Why couldn’t I see the trail of deceit? How could I know that LBJ didn’t believe in “victory”? I thought we could, and should, win the war, and clearly only victory over communist aggression could justify sending Americans to fight the war. So I supported it.

In 1968 we didn’t have Robert Caro to tell us that LBJ was the biggest liar in American politics (Bill Clinton, who finally bested him, graduated from Georgetown that same year). Unfortunately, millions in my generation believed Johnson’s lies, and then the lies of Kissinger and Nixon and the rest, and tens of thousands of my generation died because of them.

I had supported the Viet Nam war because I believed it was the only alternative to “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh.” But I was wrong. Three years ago this month, my wife and I had dinner at a friend’s cabin down the Blue Ridge from us. His neighbor Eugene McCarthy joined us, and surprised me when we were introduced by asking if I was related to the Dean from Notre Dame who used to travel, like professor McCarthy had in the 1940s, speaking on Catholic college campuses. I liked him already.

That night Senator “Be Clean for Gene” McCarthy told us why he had opposed the war in Viet Nam. “Lyndon lied to me, McNamara lied to me. Bobby lied to me. No one would tell me the truth.”

Senator McCarthy made it clear to me that there were often more than two sides to arguments about war. I realized that my “support” for the war in Viet Nam had two sources: first, an innate sense of patriotism — call it what you will, love of freedom, support our troops, our guys versus the bad guys, my country, right or wrong. Second, a hatred of communism, and of the domestic American leftists who supported a communist victory in Southeast Asia. Well, Lyndon Johnson had our number. He knew that millions of patriotic Americans would want to believe their government, and would want to defeat communism. So he lied through his teeth. Millions believed him. Millions died.

New arrivals in Washington these days are always cautioned to “seize the moral high ground”; if you frame the issue, you win the debate. Lyndon Johnson framed the issue: if you oppose the war, you’re for the commies. Holding my nose, I supported the war.

It was hard for me as a college student to realize that it wasn’t unpatriotic to oppose your government, even in war, because it was lying to you. After listening to Gene McCarthy, I realized that there was a price to pay, but you could do it. In fact, it is the truly conservative thing to do when you’re being lied to. You need not support either the enemy or your own lying government. If neither one tells the truth, be the Lone Ranger, if you must, but insist on the truth. One precaution, however: taking this position doesn’t pay (in fact, it got Socrates killed), while propounding the lies often pays extremely well. I marvel at how, even today, Lyndon Johnson’s old enablers like Jack Valenti and Bill Moyers can make millions of dollars a year for spouting ethical incantations over the airwaves and on Capitol Hill. I marvel that lightning doesn’t strike them. Indeed, ours must be a merciful God. My faith is strengthened.

So today I listen very carefully to advocates of the war on Iraq. I don’t find them persuasive. Their arguments don’t parse. They’re full of glib assertions, personal attacks, “evidence” stretched to the breaking point, table-pounding, more personal attacks, somber pieties, and hackneyed platitudes. I constantly wonder, do they indulge in such simplistic banalities because they think the American people are incapable of sophisticated discussion? Or do they themselves embrace these sophistries? Either way, there are troubling questions.

Which is, no doubt, why they don’t want us to ask them. In fact, suppressing the forbidden questions has been a constant theme since 9-11. “Too late to argue, you navel-contemplators!” “Now is the time for action, not discussion.” “You’ve lost the argument,” they harrumph and sneer. But there hasn’t been any argument. In fact, we have seen a decided refusal to engage in honest discussion. Congress has refused to consider and debate a Declaration of War. And just last week the State Department and the Defense Department refused to send anyone to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the administration’s “democratic” plans for post-war Iraq, even though Chairman Richard Lugar had specifically requested them to.

Discussion is forbidden. We get only endless sloganeering and tub-thumping, tawdry banalities like “axis of evil” and “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.” And, my all-time favorite, “they hate us because we’re so good.” (It should not be overlooked that many of them were crafted by cynical, self-seeking manipulators looking for a boost in their bureaucratic careers). There is no discussion of the difficulties “democracy” might face in the postwar Middle East, or of our “special relationships” with Britain and Israel that are a centerpiece of our policies. These key issues are worthy of adult discussion, free of name-calling, epithets, and all the rest. Scholars discuss and debate them all the time. But such discussion is not permitted in the political realm.

The warriors have done their best to frame the Iraq issue this way: “this war pits millions of freedom-loving Americans against the Marxist wackos, left-wing weenies, and “Old Europe” has-beens who support terrorism, torture, and throwing babies out of incubators” (oops, that lie was from the last war).

However, we could just as honestly frame it thus: “this war pits millions of freedom-loving and peaceable Americans against a powerful clique of Trotskyite and Straussian academics, and their acolytes in government, who want to use our armed forces to pave the world with made-in-America imperial democracies.”

It must be their passion for democracy that prompts them to urge the Turkish military to overthrow Turkey’s duly elected democratic government. That government impudently turned down tens of billions of American taxpayer dollars in bribes and still refuses to allow American troops to invade Iraq from Turkish soil. It must be overthrown, in the name of democracy!

Like my father and me, many generations of Americans have supported our wars because they believed the lies the government told them. And there was a downside to disbelief: question the character of Wilson, or FDR, or LBJ, and you were unpatriotic, selfish, and you weren’t supporting our troops. “They must have the best information,” an old friend (and World War II vet) tells me encouragingly. “They know more than we do, they’ll do the right thing.” Such well-motivated, unquestioning trust sent hundreds of millions to their death in the twentieth, the bloodiest of centuries. We simply must avoid an instant replay the next time around.

“No one would tell me the truth,” says Senator McCarthy. And Solzhenitsyn once said that “the truth will make you free, but falsehood inevitably brings violence in its wake.”

There aren’t just “two sides” to this issue. There is clearly a place for principled opposition to this war — at least until someone tells the bombers to stop the bombast and tell us the truth.

Christopher Manion [send him mail] writes from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.

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