To Succeed as a Political Sycophant, Shamelessly Flatter and Manipulate Your Chief

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Government leaders seek power, glory, and fame, but they also have other objectives. They especially enjoy the kowtowing and groveling of everyone they encounter — your highness this, your majesty that, your excellency here, your lordship there, and so forth. Even in democratic nation-states, rulers surround themselves with ambitious and unscrupulous flunkies who will faithfully nourish the boss’s colossal vanity. Political chieftains, who fancy themselves great men, require that members of their entourage constantly reinforce their grotesquely warped self-conception with obsequious expressions of admiration for their virtues, capabilities, and all-around greatness. George W. Bush, for example, is said to live inside a “bubble” of ass-kissing yes-men — a veritable “home on the range, where never is heard a discouraging word” about him or his lamebrained decisions.

For the lieutenant or staff member, the payoff comes not only from retaining a position in the shadow of the throne, but also from influencing the ruler’s actions and policy decisions in a way that serves either to gratify the retainer’s ideological objectives or to promote his accumulation of political capital with interest groups and persons who will reward him in due course. Subordinates strive to serve the boss — they’d better, if they know what’s good for them — and, more important, to be seen as serving him, yet at the same time they incessantly scheme to realize their own fantasies and to feather their own nests. In some cases, they dream of becoming capo di tutti capi themselves and maneuver accordingly.

In the courtier’s conduct of his workaday fawning, he need not possess Machiavellian cunning in the arts of flattery, however, because he can rely on tested templates passed down from previous masters of manipulative ingratiation. Suppose, for example, that one of the neocon intriguers who surrounded President Bush in 2002, steering him toward a gratuitous attack on Iraq, had become worried that other advisers, who cautioned reconsideration or delay of the attack, might be gaining the president’s ear. The worried aide might then have sent his boss the following memo, which employs the text of an earlier such memo, except that a few words have been altered to suit the present occasion (the substituted terms appear in bold font).

“Mr. President, word was brought to me yesterday evening that persons in our country’s government are hoping to betray the cause of the heroic Israeli people and strike a deadly blow at all your plans for a world-wide democratic victory. I was told that the Iraqi staff at the United Nations is openly boasting of a great triumph for the “New Islamo-Fascist Order.” Oil — rivers of oil — will soon be flowing to the Iraqi and Syrian war machines. A humiliated democracy in the Middle East — Israelas well as Europe and America will soon be facing an Islamo-Fascist coalition emboldened and strengthened by diplomatic victory. — So the Iraqis are saying.

“Mr. President, I am aware that many honest individuals argue that a Middle East Munich is necessary at the moment. But I write this letter because millions of human beings everywhere in the world share with me the profound conviction that you will lead a suffering world to victory over the menace to all our lives and all of our liberties. To sell Israel to her enemies for the thirty blood-stained coins of gold will not only weaken our national policy in Europe as well as in the Middle East, but will dim the bright lustre of America’s world leadership in the great democratic fight against Islamo-Fascism.

“On this day, Mr. President, the whole country looks to you to save America’s power as well as her sacred honor. I know — I have, the most perfect confidence — that should these stories be true, should there be Americans who seek to destroy your declared policy in world affairs, that you will succeed in circumventing these plotters of a new Munich.”

A follow-up letter might have read as follows:

“After our long association, I need not tell you that this is not written in any doubt of your objectives, but I feel and fear that if the people, our people, and all the oppressed people of the earth, interpret your move as an appeasement of repressive forces, as a move that savors strongly of ‘selling out Israel‘ for a temporary respite, a terrible blow will have been struck against those very objectives. . . .

“It is because of your forthright and unyielding stand, it is because you are the one statesman whose record has never been besmirched by even a trace of appeasement that the United States holds its unique and supreme position in world affairs today. Not the potential power of our great country, but your record, Mr. President, has placed the United States and you, its titular head and spokesman, in a position to exercise the leading force which will bring ultimate victory over aggression and Islamo-Fascism.

“Mr. President, I want to explain in language as strong as I can command, my feeling that the need is for iron firmness. No settlement with Iraq that in any way seems to the American people, or to the rest of the world, to be a retreat, no matter how temporary, from our increasingly clear policy of opposition to aggressors, will be viewed as consistent with the position of our government or with the leadership that you have established.”

The original (undated) memo was sent in the fall of 1941, probably in November, by Harry Dexter White, a top Treasury official and close presidential adviser who was almost certainly also a secret Soviet agent. Besides being a key decision-maker in international economic policy during World War II, White, even more than John Maynard Keynes, became a principal architect of the institutions created by the Bretton Woods Agreement — the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (the latter now part of the World Bank Group).

Late in 1941, White feared that President Franklin D. Roosevelt might be diverted from the ongoing program to provoke a Japanese attack by imposing severe economic sanctions on the Japanese and by making unacceptable demands that they alter the conduct of their foreign affairs in East Asia. Whereas Roosevelt and his Cabinet sought to provoke the Japanese because war with Japan would open a “back door” to total U.S. engagement in the war against Japan’s ally Germany, White and other Soviet agents and sympathizers in the Roosevelt administration sought to bring about a war between the United States and Japan in order to relieve the Soviets of a Japanese threat and thereby allow them to divert troops from Siberia to the German front. On this issue, see Anthony Kubek’s 1959 study Communism at Pearl Harbor: How the Communists Helped to Bring on Pearl Harbor and Open Up Asia to Communization, which is also the source from which I have taken White’s memo (Kubek found a copy of the original memo among White’s papers at Princeton University).

The memo reads as follows.

“Mr. President, word was brought to me yesterday evening that persons in our country’s government are hoping to betray the cause of the heroic Chinese people and strike a deadly blow at all your plans for a world-wide democratic victory. I was told that the Japanese Embassy staff is openly boasting of a great triumph for the “New Order.” Oil — rivers of oil — will soon be flowing to the Japanese war machines. A humiliated democracy in the Far East, China, Holland, Great Britain will soon be facing a Fascist coalition emboldened and strengthened by diplomatic victory. — So the Japanese are saying.

“Mr. President, I am aware that many honest individuals argue that a Far East Munich is necessary at the moment. But I write this letter because millions of human beings everywhere in the world share with me the profound conviction that you will lead a suffering world to victory over the menace to all our lives and all of our liberties. To sell China to her enemies for the thirty blood-stained coins of gold will not only weaken our national policy in Europe as well as in the Far East, but will dim the bright lustre of America’s world leadership in the great democratic fight against Fascism.

“On this day, Mr. President, the whole country looks to you to save America’s power as well as her sacred honor. I know — I have, the most perfect confidence — that should these stories be true, should there be Americans who seek to destroy your declared policy in world affairs, that you will succeed in circumventing these plotters of a new Munich.”

The original follow-up letter, sent on November 24 or 25, 1941, was signed by Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., but was probably written by White. It reads in part as follows:

“After our long association, I need not tell you that this is not written in any doubt of your objectives, but I feel and fear that if the people, our people, and all the oppressed people of the earth, interpret your move as an appeasement of repressive forces, as a move that savors strongly of ‘selling out China’ for a temporary respite, a terrible blow will have been struck against those very objectives. . . .

“It is because of your forthright and unyielding stand, it is because you are the one statesman whose record has never been besmirched by even a trace of appeasement that the United States holds its unique and supreme position in world affairs today. Not the potential power of our great country, but your record, Mr. President, has placed the United States and you, its titular head and spokesman, in a position to exercise the leading force which will bring ultimate victory over aggression and Fascism.

“Mr. President, I want to explain in language as strong as I can command, my feeling that the need is for iron firmness. No settlement with Japan that in any way seems to the American people, or to the rest of the world, to be a retreat, no matter how temporary, from our increasingly clear policy of opposition to aggressors, will be viewed as consistent with the position of our government or with the leadership that you have established.”

(My source is again Kubek’s study, and his source is again White’s papers at Princeton.)

Robert Higgs [send him mail] is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute and editor of The Independent Review. His most recent book is Depression, War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy. He is also the author of Resurgence of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11 and Against Leviathan.

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