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Pretexts for war
American military intervention one after the other

August 12, 2004

So finally, it's official: the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which was used by the Johnson Administration as a justification to attack North Vietnman, was a flimsy pretext . For those of you who haven't kept up with the facts, here's a brief review:

With the assassination of President John F Kennedy in November 1963, Lyndon Johnson automatically became President. Johnson's administration was convinced that the regime in South Vietnam was about to fall and, according to their idea of the "Domino Theory" the fall of S. Vietnam to Communism would result in the fall of other surrounding governments too. However, the indirect measures taken by the US to prevent the fall of the S. Vietnam had not been successful. The war hawks in the Johnson administration urged a direct military attack on North Vietnam instead.

Johnson knew that greater US military involvement in Vietnam, especially a direct US miltiary attack on North Vietnam, would not be popular among Americans. After all, he had the upcoming 1964 presidential elections to worry about, but the military planners were concerned that South Vietnam would fall before the elections. It was therefore necessary to create an pretext for the bombing of North Vietnam, which would convince the American people and the rest of the world. That pretext is known to history as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident.

According to recently declassified documents released by the National Security Archives, the US sent a navy ship into the Gulf of Tonkin, which is located near North Vietnam, to engage in intelligence-gathering as part of a coordinated espionage offensive against the North Vietnamese. On August 2, 1964, a US navy ship named "Maddox" was fired upon by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. In retaliation, the Maddox fired back and hit all three, one of which sank. The Maddox then retreated into international waters but the next day it was ordered to back into the Gulf of Tonkin.

On Aug 4,1964, the Captain of the Maddox reported that his ship had been attacked by North Vietnamese forces again. However, later he sent a message that raised doubts about the attack, and attributed the false alarm to "freak weather reports and over-eager sonar men." But that was enough for President Johnson. Johnson now had the excuse he had been waiting for, and he ignored the Captain's second message. Instead, he ordered the bombing of four North Vietnamese bases. Johnson then went on TV and told the American people that "Repeated acts of violence against the armed forces of the United States must be met not only with alert defence, but with a positive reply.

That reply is being given as I speak tonight." The US Congress approved Johnson's decision to bomb North Vietnam and passed what has become known as the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which granted Johnson the power to "take all necessary measures to repel armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression." The bill passed, 416 to 0 by the House and 88 to 2 by the Senate.

The front page of the New York Times reported on that day: "President Johnson has ordered retaliatory action against gunboats and 'certain supporting facilities in North Vietnam' after renewed attacks against American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin." Of course, as we know now, there was no "second attack" by North Vietnam and no "renewed attacks against American destroyers." By repeating official propaganda as absolute truths, the American media contributed to the bloody Vietnam War and failed to act as the watchdog of democarcy.

By 1969, the U.S. had almost a half-million troops in Vietnam, and was dropping some 400 tons of bombs and ordnance per day on the Vietnamese. And the rest is history. Incidentally, after the fall of S. Vietnam, there was no chain reaction of Communist successes as predicted by the Domino Theory. All that was left was just a lot of dead bodies, a lot of lies, and an old US Defense Secretary McNamara who admitted that he continued fighting the Vietnam war even when he knew it was a lost cause.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident was of course just one of many pretexts for wars. People naturally prefer to avoid wars. A war has to be "sold" to the people, even if it means lying to them. The public will not tolerate getting their children killed for flimsy theories like the "Domino Theory" alone - they need to be taught to hate the enemy, and to consider themselves the victims of the enemy's hatred. And that's why pretexts for war are necessary. The Tonkin Incident was in fact just the last of a long series of propaganda claims used to demonize the North Vietnamese and characterize them as the aggressors against a peace-loving America.

For example, in 1965 the CIA printed up a lot of stamps which showed a Viet Cong soldier shooting at a US helicopter. The stamps were made to look like they were printed in North Vietnam, by the North Vietnamese government. The CIA pasted the stamps on falsified letters which looked like they had been written mailed from North Vietnam, and then the CIA showed the letters with the stamps to the credulous US journalists.

The message was clear: Look how those nasty North Vietnamese are celebrate shooting at our boys and celebrating it with their stamps! And just to be sure that everyone got the message, the alleged "North Vietnamese" stamp was also displayed on the cover of Life Magazine of February 26th 1965. A number of Web sites show this magazine cover, here for example.

It was only in the early 1980's that a disgruntled former CIA employee exposed the affair. And that wasn't the first time that a false prop had been used to justify a war. Lets go all the way back to the sinking of the Lusitania.

The Lusitania was a British cargo and passenger ship that was torpedoed and sank by a German submarine in May 7, 1915. The ship was supposed to be a passenger ship, however it was secretly carrying artillery shells and millions of rounds ammunition to Britain from the US. The Germans had repeatedly warned that the use of civilian passenger ships to ferry illegal contraband to Britain would cause the ships to come under attack. They had even published a warning in the US newspapers the morning of her departure, but the warnings were ignored.

According to some source, an attack on the ship was exactly the British and Americans wanted: an atrocity to justify US involvement into World War I (And that's what they got when the Lusitania was sun, killing 1,195 of the 1,959 passengers on board, including 123 Americans. Before the United States entered World War I, there was strong resistance against the war among the American people. In fact, President Woodrow Wilson's re-election in 1916 was partly due to his success in keeping the U.S. out of that European war. However, the sinking of the Lusitania provided the necessary pretext for Wilson to change his position.

The press of course went crazy with news of the sinking of the Lusitania. Already, a government propaganda office known as the Creel Committee had been promoting pro-war hysteria in the USA by deliberately stirring up intense anti-German hatred. This patriotic fervor soon developed into rigid ideology which resulted in the violent suppression of all forms of anti-war dissent. Laws were passed which prohibited any criticism of the war effort, and over 1500 individuals were arrested for expressing anti-war opinions.

Private vigilante groups enforced the pro-war sentiment with violence, with the approval of the government. Even food items like hamburgers, sauerkraut, and frankfurters were given American names, and the German-sounding names of US cities were changed. People with German-sounding names changed them too (including the British royals, who descended from Germany) and a man was lynched by a mob of several hundred people simply because he had the misfortune of being German-born.

And in the midst of all this came the final insult: the Lusitania medal. The British distributed thousands of these medal, which they claimed were replicas of a medal that the German government had created and which supposedly celebrated the sinking of the Lusitania. What more proof was necessary of the perfidy of those terrible Germans! They were celebrating the Lusitania sinking by making medallions to mark the event! The British even put the medals in a nice little box, with a picture of the Lusitania on the lid and the following description printed inside:

"An exact replica of the medal which was designed in Germany and distributed to commemorate the sinking of the Lusitania...This medal is proof positive that such crimes are not merely regarded favourably, but are given every encouragement in the land of Kultur [reference to Germany]" And they included a pamphlet with the medal which read:

"This medal has been struck in Germany with the object of keeping alive in German hearts the the recollection of the glorious achievement of the German navy in deliberately destroying an unarmed passenger ship..."

But the facts were a bit different: a private individual in Germany by the name of Karl Goetz had made the medal in his home as a sort of political commentary, and he had distributed a few copies amongst this friends. The medal did not celebrate the sinking of the Lusitania, and the German government had not created the medal. The British had falsely attributed the medal to the government of Germany in order to stir anti-German hatred.

But it was only after the war that the truth about the medal came out. (Falsehood in Wartime, by Arthur Ponsonby) And you can still find Lusitania medals on sale on Ebay. Of course, pretexts for war are not a monopoly of the US or UK. Hitler used the pretext of "humanitarian intervention" when he invaded a part of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland, which had a large concentration of ethnic Germans.

In a letter to Chamberlain, Hitler justified his invasion of Czechoslovakia on the grounds that "the security of more than 3,000,000 human beings was at stake" and that the ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia had been " prevented from realizing also the right of nations to self-determination." Yes, as you see, Hitler was such a big a fan of self-determination.

But leaving Hitler and his ilk aside, American history is full of pretext for war. We an start with the the Mexican-American war of 1846 (manufactured border dispute used as a pretext for the US to gain much territory from Mexico) and go to the Spanish-American war of 1898 (accidental sinking of the USS Maine in Havanna harbour used as a pretext to wrestle Cuba and other territory away from Spain) to the invasion of Grenada in 1983 (rescue of American medical students who were in no danger) and to the Gulf War (nonexistent weapons of mass destruction located in Iraq.)

There are suggestions among some historians that the US knew of and provoked the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to justify US involvement in World War II (Day of Deceit: the Truth about FDR and Pearl Harbor, by Robert Stinnett.) According to James Bamford, the US even considered promoting a campaign of terrorism on US soil which was to be blamed on Castro so as to create a pretext to invade Cuba. (Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency.)

So pretexts are not new. But in the case of America, the real irony is how people buy into the pretexts of war - repeatedly. After all, America is supposed to be a democracy, where the we have a government of the people, by the people, for the people. And yet the people are led around like a herd. And typically, the media usually actively promotes the pretext and contributes to the trickery. And Congress? It can't wait to give Presidents full authority to wage war. So I have to ask: in what sense is the US truly a democracy? When we're sold on the next war, or the one after that one, are we really functioning as a democratic nation should?

You have until the next war to decide.

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