In his famous essay, “War is the Health of the State,” Randolph Bourne made an important distinction between country and state. One’s country is “an inescapable group into which we re born.” As such, “there is no more feeling of rivalry with other peoples than there is in our feeling for our family.” Country is “a concept of peace, of tolerance, of living and letting live,” wrote Bourne.
The state, on the other hand, “is essentially a concept of power, of competition.” Conflating the two concepts – country and state – sends one into a hopeless and very dangerous confusion. For the history of the American country is one of “conquest of the land, of the growth of wealth, of the enterprise of education, and the carrying out of spiritual ideals.”
The history of the American state, by contrast, is one of “making war, obstructing international trade, preventing itself from being split to pieces, punishing those citizens whom society agrees are offensive, and collecting money to pay for it all.
In peacetime the state “has almost no trappings to appeal to the common man’s emotions,” wrote Bourne. The average citizen largely ignores the state. For example, at the outset of the American “Civil War” the only connection the average citizen had with the federal government was though the post office and paying about $45/year in taxes. This of course is considered to be a disaster or a calamity by all statists.
“With the shock of war,” however, “the state comes into its own again.” War is the health of the state. It is the reason given for high taxes, internal revenue bureaucracies, pervasive spying, censorship, military conscription, the abolition of civil liberties, heavy debt, an explosive growth of government spending and borrowing, extensive excise taxation, nationalization of industries, socialist central planning, massive public indoctrination campaigns, the punishment and imprisonment of dissenters to the state’s rule, the shooting of deserters from its armies, the conquest of other countries, inflation of the currency, demonization of private enterprise and the civil society for being insufficiently “patriotic,” the growth of a military/industrial complex, a vast expansion of governmental pork barrel spending, the demonization of the ideas of freedom and individualism and those who espouse them, and a never-ending celebration, if not deification, of statism and militarism.
The average citizen has no interest in any of this. The average citizen of a militaristic empire is nothing more than a taxpayer/supplier of cannon fodder in the eyes of the state. Therein lies the state’s biggest conundrum: How to go about getting the masses to go along with their own self enslavement as taxpayers and cannon fodder and cheerleaders for war. The answer to this conundrum has always been the crafting of a series of lies about the “imperative” to wage war. For as Bourne also wrote: “[A]ll foreign policy, the diplomatic negotiations which produce or forestall war are . . . the private property of the Executive part of the Government, and are equally exposed to no check whatever from popular bodies, or the people voting as a mass themselves.”
Most people are “rationally ignorant” of almost all of what government does, and they are the most ignorant about foreign policy. This allows politicians to lie nations into war with impunity, for they have always understood that “the moment war is declared . . . the mass of the people through some spiritual alchemy, become convinced that they have willed and executed the deed [of starting a war] themselves (emphasis added).” At that point “the citizen throws off his contempt and indifference to Government, identifies himself with its purposes, revives all his military memories and symbols, and the state once more walks in august presence, through the imaginations of men.” Most destructively, “the patriot loses all sense of the distinction between state, nation, and government.”
LYING AMERICANS INTO WAR
As this is being written the U.S. government is spreading the tall tale that the Syrian government allegedly killed some 100 of its own citizens with poison gas. President Obama announced last year, quite conveniently, that that is what would cause him to “cross the line” and wage war on the Syrian government despite the fact that the Syrian government poses no threat of harm to any American. It is a replay of the last lie to start a war – the Bush administration’s lie that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq possessed “weapons of mass destruction” that somehow threatened Americans. That was quickly proven to be a lie, but it was too late. As Randolph Bourne wrote, once a war is started most Americans become slavishly obedient to the warfare state and tend to believe all of is lies, no matter how spectacular they may be. (The first Persian Gulf War of the early 1990s was partly “justified” by the lie that Iraqi soldiers were pulling the plugs in hospital nurseries where prematurely-born Kuwaiti babies were dying).
The War of 1812
Barely twenty years after the U.S. Constitution was ratified the “virus of imperialism” infected quite a few American politicians who believed it was their “manifest destiny” to invade and conquer Canada. One of the congressional leaders of the early nineteenth-century war party, Henry Clay, celebrated the declaration of war on June 4, 1812, by declaring that “Every patriot bosom must throb with anxious solicitude for the result. Every patriot arm will assist in making that result conducive to the glory of our beloved country” (David and Jeane Heidler, Henry Clay: The Essential American, p. 98).
Among the “official reasons” for the invasion of Canada in 1812 were the alleged “impressment” of American sailors by the British government, but that had been going on for decades, as Justin Raimondo has pointed out. The tall tale was also broadcast that the “evil” British were encouraging Indians to attack American settlers. The real reason for the war, however, was an impulse to grow the state with an imperialistic war of conquest. The result of the war was a disaster – the British burned down the White House, the Library of Congress, and much of Washington, D.C. Americans were saddled with a huge war debt that was used as an excuse to resurrect the corrupt and economically destabilizing Bank of the United States, a precursor of the Fed.
The Mexican-American War
When James K. Polk became president in 1845 he announced to his cabinet that one of his chief objectives was to acquire California, which was then a part of Mexico. As he wrote in his diary (online as “The Diary of James K. Polk”), “I stated to the cabinet that up to this time as they knew, we had heard of no open act of aggression by the Mexican army, but that the danger was imminent that such acts would be committed. I said that in my opinion we had ample cause of war.”
Thus, long before the presidency of George W. Bush, James K, Polk advocated the neocon notion of “pre-emptive war.” Polk recognized that the Mexican army had not committed any “act of aggression,” so set out to provoke one by sending American troops to the border of Mexico in territory that historians agree was “disputed territory” at the time because of a very dubious claim by the U.S. government. None other than Ulysses S. Grant wrote in his memoirs that, as a young soldier serving under the command of General Zachary Taylor during the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War, he understood that he had been sent there to provoke a fight:
“The presence of United States troops on the edge of the disputed territory furthest from the Mexican settlements, was not sufficient to provoke hostilities. We were sent to provoke a fight, but it was essential that Mexico should commence it. I was very doubtful whether Congress would declare war; but if Mexico should attack our troops, the Executive [President Polk] could announce, ‘Whereas war exist by the acts of, etc.’ and prosecute the contest with vigor.”
Polk’s gambit worked; he did provoke the Mexican army. In his war message to Congress he then declared that “Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil. . . . As war exists . . . by the act of Mexico herself, we are called upon by every consideration of duty and patriotism to vindicate with decision the honor, the rights, and the interests of our country.” This con game of provoking a war by showing up on another nation’s border, heavily armed with weapons aimed at the hoped-for belligerent, would be repeated many times in subsequent generations, right up to today’s provocation of a war in Syria.
The invasion and conquest of Mexico enabled the U.S. government to acquire California and New Mexico at the cost of some 15,000 American lives and at least 25,000 Mexican casualties. It was an aggressive war of conquest and imperialism.
The American “Civil War”
In his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln threatened “invasion” and “bloodshed” (his exact words) in any state that refused to collect the federal tariff tax on imports, which had just been more than doubled two days earlier. At the time, tariffs accounted for more than 90 percent of all federal tax revenue, so this was a gigantic tax increase. This is how Lincoln threatened war in his first official oration:
“The power confided in me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government, and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere.”
But of course the states of the lower South, having seceded, did not intend to “collect the duties and imposts” and send the money to Washington, D.C. Lincoln committed treason (as defined by Article 3, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution) by levying war upon the free and independent states, which he always considered to be a part of the American union. By his own admission (and his subsequent actions), he invaded his own country over tax collection.
The Republican Party of 1860 was the party of protectionism and high tariffs. The Confederate Constitution had outlawed protectionist tariffs altogether. The result would have been a massive diversion of world trade to the Southern ports which would have forced the U.S. government to reduce its desired 50 percent average tariff rate to competitive levels (10-15 percent), depriving Northern manufacturers of this veiled form of corporate welfare, and depriving the government of the revenue it needed to pursue its “manifest destiny” of a mercantilist empire complete with massive subsidies for railroad corporations (among others).
Lincoln’s dilemma was that he knew he would be condemned worldwide for waging a bloody war over tax collection. Another excuse for war had to be invented, so he invented the notion of the “mystical,” permanent, and non-voluntary union. He did not want to be seen as the aggressor in his war for tariff revenue, so he hatched a plot to trick Southerners into firing the first shot by sending American warships to Charleston Harbor while steadfastly refusing to meet with Confederate peace commissioners or discuss the purchase of federal property by the Confederate government. He understood that the Confederates would not tolerate a foreign fort on their property any more than George Washington would have tolerated a British fort in New York or Boston Harbors.
Quite a few Northern newspapers recognized the game Lincoln was playing. On April 16, 1861the Buffalo Daily Courier editorialized that “The affair at Fort Sumter . . has been planned as a means by which the war feeling at the North should be intensified” (Howard Cecil Perkis, Northern Editorials on Secession). The New York Evening Day Book wrote on April 17, 1861, that the event at Fort Sumter was “a cunningly devised scheme” contrived “to arouse, and, if possible, exasperate the northern people against the South.” “Look at the facts,” the Providence Daily Post wrote on April 13, 1861. “For three weeks the [Lincoln] administration newspapers have been assuring us that Ford Sumter would be abandoned,” but “Mr. Lincoln saw an opportunity to inaugurate civil war without appearing in the character of an aggressor.” The Jersey City American Standard editorialized that “there is a madness and ruthlessness” in Lincoln’s behavior, concluding that Lincolns sending of ships to Charleston Harbor was “a pretext for letting loose the horrors of war.”
After Fort Sumter, on May 1, 1861, Lincoln wrote to his naval commander, Captain Gustavus Fox, to say that “You and I both anticipated that the cause of the country [i.e., a civil war] would be advanced by making the attempt to provision Fort Sumter, even if it should fail; and it is no small consolation now to feel that our anticipation is justified by the result.” He was thanking Captain Fox for his role in duping the Confederates into firing upon Fort Sumter (where no one was either killed or wounded). He was thanking Captain Fox for his assistance in
starting the war. Lincoln responded with a full-scale invasion of all the Southern states and a four-year war that, according to the latest research, was responsible for as many as 850,000 American deaths with more than double that number maimed for life.
The Spanish-American War
Immediately after the “Civil War” the U.S. government waged a twenty-five-year war of genocide against the Plains Indians “to make way for the railroad corporations,” as General Sherman declared (See my Independent Review article, “Violence in the American West: Myth versus Reality”). Then by the late 1880s American imperialists wanted to kick the Spanish out of Cuba where American business interests had invested in sugar and tobacco plantations. An American warship, the U.S.S. Maine, was sent to Havana in January of 1898 to supposedly protect American business interests from an insurrection. On February 15, 1898, a mysterious explosion sunk the ship, killing 270 sailors. The Spanish were blamed for the explosion despite a lack of incriminating evidence. “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war,” newspaperman William Randolph Hearst famously said to the artist Frederic Remington, implying that, armed with the artist’s illustrations, his newspapers would generate war propaganda. The U.S. government waged war with Spain occupied Cuba for the next four years, making the world safe for American sugar and tobacco corporations.
World War I
In 1915 a German submarine sunk the RMS Lusitania, a British ship that was supposedly a civilian cruise ship. About one-hundred Americans were on board, which enabled President Woodrow Wilson to copy Lincoln’s war tactic and use the sinking of the ship to argue for war. Before the sinking of the Lusitania Wilson knew that the ship was carrying arms but refused to issue warnings to American passengers that, since Britain and Germany were at war, it could be risky to be a passenger on the Lusitania. He used the sinking of the ship to excite anti-German hysteria and persuade the Congress to have the U.S enter the European war. In 2008 a diving expedition discovered that the Lusitania held more than four million rounds of rifle ammunition, much of which was packed away in boxes labeled “cheese” or “butter” or “oysters.”
The Pearl Harbor Deception
Robert Stinnett, author of Day of Deceit: The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor, is a World War II veteran who had a career as a journalist with the Oakland Tribune and BBC for several decades after the war. He researched his book upon discovering, in 1993, that the U.S. Naval Security Group Command had decided to place into public archives at the University of Maryland hundreds of thousands of Japanese military messages obtained by U.S. monitoring/spying stations prior to Pearl Harbor. These records had not been seen by anyone since 1941.
What Stinnett found was that, just as the vast majority of Northerners did not favor war on the eve of Fort Sumter in 1861, the vast majority of Americans eighty years later supported the America First non-interventionist movement led by Charles Lindbergh. Eighty percent of the American public was non-interventionist in 1940-1941. After Germany “made a strategic error” by signing a treaty with Japan,, a U.S. Lieutenant Commander Arthur McCollum of Naval Intelligence apparently saw an opportunity to counter the America First movement by provoking Japan into attacking the United States and getting the public behind war.
Using the government’s own sources, Stinnett found that President Franklin D. Roosevelt adopted an Office of Naval Intelligence plan to provoke Japan into attacking Pearl Harbor with an eight-point plan, the most important of which was keeping most of the U.S. fleet parked as sitting ducks at Pearl Harbor. When the commander of the U.S. fleet, Admiral James Richardson, objected to allowing his sailors to be slaughtered by the Japanese, FDR fired Richardson and replaced him with Rear Admiral Husband E. Kimmel.
FDR implemented the entire eight-point plan but kept Admiral Kimmel and General Walter Short, commander of U.S. Army troops in Hawaii, in the dark. Over 1,000 Japanese messages per day were intercepted by the U.S. Navy, which knew in advance everything the Japanese were doing in the Pacific on their way to Pearl Harbor. They knew in advance that the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor on December 7 1941. Kimmel and Short were even given direct orders by FDR himself, Stinnett found, to “remain in a defensive posture” because “the United States desires that Japan commit the first overt act.”
On October 30, 2000, President Bill Clinton signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act that, among many other things, acknowledged that Kimmel and Short were denied crucial military intelligence about the Japanese fleet prior to the Pearl Harbor attack. Kimmel and Short were fired by FDR after the attack, but were exonerated fifty-nine years later.
The Gulf of Tonkin “Incidents”
Shortly before his assassination in November of 1963 President John F. Kennedy had begun recalling U.S. military “advisors” from Vietnam. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, was hell bent on waging total war in Vietnam. Once again the American public had little interest in a civil war thousands of miles away in Asia, but were easily duped into acquiescing in one. Once again the ruse involved mysterious occurrences involving battle ships in the middle of nowhere, where the only accounts of the incidents came from the U.S government.
The U.S. government began “covertly” supplying gunboats to the South Vietnamese army which were used to attack the coast of North Vietnam. This was acknowledged in 1964 by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. In addition,
American warships hovered around North Vietnamese ports. This included the USS Maddox. Placing the ships in harm’s way was Johnson’s FDR-type strategy to provoke an attack by the North Vietnamese, and it succeeded.
Johnson falsely claimed that there was a second attack on the USS Maddox, but that is acknowledged to be a hoax. Naval sonar picked up American propeller noise, and radar showed images caused by bad weather, not North Vietnamese gunboats. Johnson nevertheless made a radio speech describing a second “attack” and called for military retaliation. Soon thereafter he ordered air strikes. In a 2003 television documentary entitled “The Fog of War” Robert McNamara admitted that the second attack on the Maddox “never happened.”
It may seem trite, but it is nevertheless true that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are bound to repeat its mistakes. Americans are about to repeat the same mistake of squandering their blood and treasure on another military adventure (in Syria) that has nothing whatsoever to do with defending American freedom – or anyone else’s.
To study imperialism and anti-imperialism more intensely, consider signing up for my new five-week online course on the subject through the Mises Academy beginning the evening of September 9.