Many Americans today live with memories of Vietnam. Some fought there, some waited for loved ones who never returned, and some marched in the streets at home in protest. Physically or emotionally, many remain scarred to this day.
The memories of living Americans are a connection to the past, a connection stronger than mere books. This is not to disparage books; books are great. But a book is not a living, breathing person. Ask Americans about Lyndon Baines Johnson and you will likely evoke an emotional response. Love him or hate him, most Americans are not mystified by LBJ. Because they lived through his tenure, most Americans today are able to evaluate LBJ objectively.
The Gulf of Tonkin incident is widely acknowledged to have been fabricated in order to get America into the war in Vietnam. As H.R. McMaster, a retired Army officer with a PhD in History, demonstrates in his book Dereliction of Duty, the lies went far beyond Tonkin, to body counts and the fact that we were losing the war. But you get the point: Americans were sent to die because of lies.
This article is an effort to encourage Americans to reconsider two allegedly "great" presidents — FDR and Lincoln — in light of the similarities between them and LBJ.
Robert Stinnett, in his book Day of Deceit, seems to have found the smoking gun which Pearl Harbor writers such as Edward Beach (Scapegoats) and John Toland (Infamy) could only guess at: 1) official records of intercepted Japanese transmissions which prove that FDR knew of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and 2) internal Navy documents showing that Pearl Harbor was the hoped-for result of a program of harassment designed to provoke Japan into an attack.
Why all the Machiavellian maneuvers? FDR was reduced to such LBJ-like chicanery because, prior to Pearl Harbor, 80% of the American public wanted nothing to do with the war in Europe.
More than 2,000 Navy men died at Pearl Harbor, and America’s 80% opposed to war swung patriotically and vengefully into war fever.
This is not to blame the American citizens who were duped by their government, nor is it to blame those who fought and died in Pacific jungles and European forests, in the skies or on the oceans. I must express nothing but gratitude and admiration for those who did their duty that others might live in safety.
This is simply to point out what was done by FDR. In The Republic, Plato referred to it as "the great lie." This is a lie which the philosopher king must tell the people so that the people may be led as they are supposed to be, i.e., so that human beings can be made to willingly act like sheep. It is so much less messy that way, so much easier for the philosopher king to get what he wants — and what he "knows" is good for people — than it is, as Napoleon did, to fire cannons into crowds rioting in the streets.
It is offensive when Nobel prize-winning economists such as the Swedish socialist, Gunnar Myrdal, refer to the mass of humanity as "cattle waiting to be led," but there is some truth to this. People are busy with their own lives, and, being generally honest, they trust politicians to act for the common good. When called upon, many men will defend their nation. Sadly, unscrupulous men posing as "leaders" often lead us astray.
Thus, despite the fact that Stinnett lays a smoking gun before his readers, he exonerates FDR for telling the lies necessary to get into the war in Europe. FDR’s lies are justified, Stinnett claims, by the fact that Hitler had to be stopped, and more specifically that the concentration camps had to be stopped.
Despite the manifest evil of the National Socialist death camps, Stinnett’s defense of FDR is known as "post hoc, ergo propter hoc," Latin for "after the fact, therefore because of the fact." "After we entered World War Two, we found out about the death camps, therefore we entered World War Two to shut down the Nazi death camps," is the essence of the argument.
But Stinnett’s argument is contradicted by history. And such an argument cannot morally justify FDR’s deception even if the lies were told solely to defeat the Nazis.
First, no one — including FDR — knew on or prior to December 7, 1941 that the National Socialists (the "Nazis") had the Final Solution in mind. Indeed, it has been argued that Hitler did not seek to implement the Final Solution until the war against the Soviet Union appeared lost.
Second, after the joint Soviet-German invasion of Poland (for which Britain and France declared war on Germany, but not the Soviet Union), the Soviets killed more Poles (400,000) than the Germans did (120,000). (These numbers come from the Museum of Communism and texts cited therein). If FDR supposedly lied about Pearl Harbor in order to stop Hitler’s butchery, why did FDR ally himself with Stalin, turning a blind eye to Stalin’s worse butchery?
(There is, of course, an answer to this question. Unfortunately for Stinnett, it is not an answer which can acquit FDR. Thomas Mahl’s book Desperate Deception establishes that, in part, FDR was maneuvered by British agents, including those in the American press and those who manipulated other influential politicians, such as the female British agent who seduced Senator Vandenberg of Michigan — in the process turning him from an advocate of neutrality into one of FDR’s war hawks. FDR was also maneuvered by Soviet spies within the American government — notably Harry Hopkins and Alger Hiss. If foreign spies can operate in Bill Clinton’s White House, despite the better technology of today, is it inconceivable that FDR’s low-tech White House was home to some moles?).
Third, at the Yalta conference, FDR not only allowed nations such as Poland to become slaves of the Soviet Union, he actually agreed to "repatriate" those Eastern Europeans who had fought against the Soviets. (On this point, see Julius Epstein’s book Operation Keelhaul, and visit the Museum of Communism). Many Russians eagerly fought alongside the German troops on the Eastern front — the crimes against the Russians, Ukrainians and Cossacks which the Communists had perpetrated demanded retribution. Similarly, it was the violation of Polish sovereignty which had brought Britain and France to declare war on Germany. Yet now that the war was coming to an end, Poland was not to be a sovereign nation. Instead, Poland was to be raped by the Communists. The Soviets are estimated to have shipped one million Poles to death camps in Siberia. Similar fates greeted the formerly hopeful residents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. This justifies Pearl Harbor?
Fourth, if FDR lied to get into World War Two to stop Hitler, it must be considered a failure in the end, as the victory over Hitler only served to bring forty years of fear of the Soviets.
Fifth, Plato and Machiavelli aside, the end does not justify the means. Even if it is true that FDR lied about Pearl Harbor in order to "stop Hitler," it was immoral to willingly sacrifice the lives of 2,000 men in order to "stop Hitler."
It may be objected that, in warfare, it is precisely the sacrifice of lives by which the end of victory is achieved. Thus, it may be argued that FDR’s decision to sacrifice the men at Pearl Harbor is no different than the decision to order an offensive which is certain to cost the lives of infantrymen. If one searches for a good analogy, where casualties among attacking troops are likely, but appear merited by a desperate situation, one might compare Pearl Harbor with Operation Market Garden.
Operation Market Garden (the subject of a book by Cornelius Ryan, and film based on the book, entitled A Bridge Too Far) was the plan of British general Montgomery to bring an early end to the war (and to stop the terrifying V-2 cruise missiles which were falling on London). The plan was to air drop the British First Airborne Division into Arnhem, in the Netherlands (nearly 70 miles behind the German lines at the time), and to race to the Dutch channel ports.
In the end, the fabled American 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions, as well as the British Guards Armoured Division, were unable to overcome the resistance of the German 10th S.S. Division. Ultimately, the remnants of the First Airborne Division snuck out of Arnhem, and Market Garden ended in failure. (As an aside, I work with two women who are related to veterans of the 101st. One woman is the child of a vet, and the other is a niece. As it turns out, the two men shared a fox hole throughout the war, and are best friends. Small world).
Had Market Garden succeeded, it would have enabled the Allies to bring supplies to the Continent more quickly (since supplies were at that time trucked up from France), perhaps ending the war by Christmas, 1944. It would also have seized the launch sites of the V-2 rockets.
Yet Market Garden failed, and the losses sustained by the First Airborne Division were horrific. Of the 10,000 British and Polish men who were dropped into Arnhem, 7578 were killed, wounded, or missing. Total Allied casualties for the nine days of Market Garden were 17,000 killed, wounded, or missing (of which 13,226 were British). This exceeds the one day total for June 6, 1944 (D-Day), with between 10,000 and 12,000 Allied casualties.
(As an aside, with reference to the earlier discussion of Operation Keelhaul — FDR’s agreement to ship Eastern Europeans back into Stalin’s domain — it should be noted that General Stanislaw Sosabowski, commander of the Polish airborne brigade at Arnhem, refused to return to Communist Poland at the end of the war. As Cornelius Ryan relates, "Sosabowski worked for a time in Britain as a common laborer," and died while Ryan wrote A Bridge Too Far).
This slaughter was in part due to intelligence failures by the British. German tanks were thought non-existent due to Allied air superiority. Thus, reports of tanks in the area of Arnhem were ignored. Similarly, the low-lying polder (land reclaimed from the sea by the Dutch) was too soft for Allied armor to traverse. This confined the advance to paved roads — making it all too easy for the Germans to cut the roads, blast apart single-file columns of vehicles — and made for many Allied losses. The First Airborne was simply not equipped to hold out for as long as it took the tanks to arrive.
Was Market Garden morally justified? Insofar as it was an offensive planned on reliable information, and designed to accomplish legitimate military objections, the only conclusion can be that it was. But does the justification for Market Garden also justify Pearl Harbor? No.
Any comparison between Market Garden and Pearl Harbor misses the point of what is wrong with FDR’s lying. Men will, of course, die in warfare. Mere deaths, callous as it may sound, are thus not the criterion of moral good or evil in evaluating the actions of politicians and soldiers in warfare.
To evaluate moral conduct, i.e. human action, it is necessary to evaluate a man’s actions as good, bad, or morally neutral in themselves. Stinnett, taking a utilitarian line, contends that the good end (stop Hitler) justifies the evil means (lying about Pearl Harbor). This argument begs the question of whether FDR’s actions were good or evil in themselves.
It matters very much that troops sent on an attack such as Market Garden know what they are doing. To let the troops know what they are doing — within the necessary limits of secrecy toward the enemy — demonstrates the respect for their lives, i.e. for their humanity, for their worth and existence as rational human beings, that is required to satisfy morality. As Immanuel Kant frames the issue, this treats the soldiers as ends-in-themselves (Kant’s term for rational beings), as opposed to mere means. In other words, this treats the soldiers like soldiers instead of like bullets. You don’t need to tell the bullet what you are going to do with it, but you do need to tell the man who will be firing the bullets what is going to happen to him.
The troops who participated in Market Garden knew, within reason, what they were getting into. They knew they would be opposed by German troops, although they had wrongly been told to expect less resistance than they met.
The troops who died at Pearl Harbor did not know what FDR, their commander in chief, had in store for them. FDR lied to the Navy. The troops were used as bait, to lure the Japanese into attacking, and to lure the American people into a frenzy for war.
After the fall of the Roman Republic, the citizens of Rome were encouraged to worship their caesars as gods. The United States is little different. Rather than Caesar Augustus or Gaius Caligula, Americans (particularly up North) are raised in the Cult of Saint Lincoln.
There are an abundance of articles which go beyond mythology to reveal the truth about Lincoln. For purposes of this article, then, I will briefly restate what has been said.
The "civl" war was not a civil war at all, since the South had no desire to take over the whole USA. The South wanted to be left alone. The War for Southern Independence, as it should rightly be called, was fought over economics and politics.
The political issue which Lincoln was willing to go to war over was the power structure of the federal government and the states, known as federalism. The South adhered to the vision of the founders, i.e. of a federal system, with a central ("federal") government created by the sovereign states and limited in its powers. Because the united states were a union of sovereign states, a state that wished to leave the union could do so at any time. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence as well as a President of the United States, said so explicitly in public speeches. So did President John Quincy Adams. The South had good reason to oppose Abraham Lincoln’s ridiculous claim that the union was permanent, and that it was "prior to the states."
The economic issue which spawned the war was Lincoln’s devotion to government intervention in the economy. Lincoln’s Northern backers favored the high tariff which Lincoln passed immediately upon taking office. The Lincoln tariff was intolerable to the South for the simple reason that it directly benefitted the North while directly harming the South. The South was an exporter of raw materials such as cotton, and an importer of European manufactured goods. With a high tariff, Southerners would be induced to buy lower-quality Northern goods instead of European goods which had been priced out of the market by the protective tariff. In the process, the busy ports of the South would lose a great deal of business, and the Northern-controlled Congress would spend the vast majority of the money raised by the tariff on pork-barrel projects in the North. Recall that in 1860, the Northern states had such a majority in the Congress that they could pass any measure they desired without a single southern vote.
Slavery, meanwhile, was announced as a war aim by Lincoln only after the war was two years old. Even then, the Emancipation Proclamation, which European publications ridiculed as a sham, only alleged to free the slaves in the Deep South, where Lincoln had no authority. It did not free the slaves in the border states, such as Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri, which Lincoln was still struggling to keep in the union.
During his career as a private attorney, Lincoln prosecuted cases returning fugitive slaves to their masters. Some hero. He campaigned with explicit statements of his lack of constitutional authority to do anything about slavery, and he stated numerous times that he did not want to do anything about slavery. When he did suggest ways to deal with slavery, Lincoln’s preferred plan was to ship the slaves back to Africa because, he said, he would prefer the white race to be superior, and he did not believe that the two races could ever live together.
Why are Americans more willing to believe that LBJ — or Nixon, for that matter — was an evil, manipulative, liar, than they are to believe such claims about FDR and Abraham Lincoln? In part, it may be that America was humiliated in Vietnam, while the American victory in World War Two is a point of pride, as is the Northern victory (at least up north) in the War for Southern Independence.
It may also be due to the enormous propaganda machine deployed by Washington, DC in both the Civil War and World War Two. Lincoln shut down thousands of newspapers, such that before the war was a year old, mere criticism of the Lincoln administration was grounds for treason. Thousands of editors and writers were jailed. Many who criticized Lincoln’s war were put to death.
In World War Two, public perception of the bloodbath was forever altered by the discovery of the concentration camps. A war which might have soured Americans on the wisdom of foreign entanglements is instead now used to justify sending American bombs and guns to Colombia, Somalia, Yugoslavia, the Middle East, and other places too numerous to mention.
In Vietnam, there was television. No longer forced by technology to get their news from the radio — and from FDR himself, in his "fireside chats" — and from newspaper, Americans could eat dinner while wondering if that was their son laying shredded and bloody in a ditch. They could see monks set themselves on fire in protest of the war, and they could see the world around them falling into chaos. LBJ, it seems, will never enjoy the secular sainthood which has been bestowed on FDR and Lincoln.
This article seeks to encourage Americans — and people the world around — to reevaluate FDR and Lincoln in light of reality, rather than in light of the brainless sound bites taught in grade school, high school and college, and repeated fawningly by television and newspaper editors and writers who either a) have nothing else to do, b) are crooked peddlers of influence, c) have not bothered to investigate thoroughly or question conventional wisdom, or d) are just plain fools.
As proof of the fact that the worship of Lincoln continues, even in the "unbiased" media, see the New Republic’s simply offensive assault on Christianity which, in a moment of hyperbole unusual even for the New Republic, proclaims that "If the Mall is hallowed ground, it is not because Jesus walked there. If the Mall is hallowed ground, it is because Lincoln walked there." Note to New Republic: Jesus never physically walked anywhere in North America. On this point, see: The Gospels.
The notion, however, that anything touched by Lincoln should therefore be "holy," is ridiculous on its face, and should be seen as such even to the most rabid worshiper of dictatorial power. The New Republic’s editorial staff seems rather a lot like the crowd following Brian in Monty Python’s Life of Brian: "This is his top hat! This is the pen he used to send slaves back to their masters and Lambdin Milligan to prison!"
At any rate, while the New Republic is explicit about the fact that its editors would have us throw away Christianity, the magazine is not so explicit in touting its alternative: Roman-style caesar worship. If that is what you want, why not come right out and say it?
Although FDR and Lincoln have been treated like saints, there is no reason for this to continue.
Ultimately, Americans must get over their fear of what will happen if they stop believing in the gods of the state.
Mr. Dieteman is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.
© 2001 David Dieteman