The killing of Osama bin Laden reminds us that there are only two disciplines in which uncaused events occurquantum physics and the history of U.S. foreign policy. According to the version of history expounded by the American media and politicians, the passenger aircraft hitting the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11 were a diabolical surprise attack out of the blue by the evil bin Laden against unsuspecting and naïve Americans. Of course, Americans were naïve, but principally about their government’s political and military interventions in Muslim countries since World War II, and especially since 1980. Bin Laden was blunt about this in his pronouncements on why he attacked the United States, but America never wanted to hear.
But this is not the first time in America’s version of its history that uncaused events have just happened. All countries twist their history into a more favorable light, and America is no exception.
The sanitized version of American history begins early with the War of 1812. If causes are discussed at all, the war was allegedly caused by British violation of American rights of neutral shipping during the Napoleonic Wars and the impressment of American sailors to fill shortages of manpower on British warships during those wars. Yet these affronts had been going on for more than a decade, and the region most adversely affected by themseafaring New Englandwas almost in open revolt against the U.S. government over war with Britain. A more important reason that the new American nation unwisely declared war on a superpower was the election of “war hawks” to Congress in 1810. They wanted to grab Canada, and when the war started, an American invasion force was quickly dispatched there to do so.
The Mexican War set a precedent for what became a rich tradition in the American democracy of provoking your enemy into firing first. President James Polkwho wanted to and did steal one-third of Mexico’s land by using military force against a much weaker countrydeliberately sent U.S. forces into a disputed area on the Texas-Mexico border, because he calculated that the Mexicans would attack that force in defending their border. The Mexicans had a much better border claim than did the Americans. Most historians agree that Polk provoked the war to grab the land, but they don’t focus on the fact that Polk had also blockaded the Rio Grande Riveran internationally recognized act of war. So the United States didn’t just provoke the enemy to attack, it started the war, just as in the War of 1812.
Almost erased from the history of the Civil War and the actions of the now-canonized Abraham Lincoln is his deliberate provocation of the Confederates to fire on a supply ship to Fort Sumter. They had already done so on another such ship at the very end of the James Buchanan administration, so Lincoln knew what would happen when he sent the ship. Lincoln even admitted that he was trying to get the Confederates to fire first. As George W. Bush did when he fell into bin Laden’s trap and invaded Iraq after 9/11, the Confederates foolishly took the bait and even went Lincoln one better. They not only fired on the ship but also the fort, thus beginning the most cataclysmic war in U.S. history.
One of the most outrageous distortions in American history is the standard version of the “massacre” of George Armstrong Custer’s forces at the Little Bighornas if it just occurred out of the blue with an attack by warlike savages. In the now-erased lead-up to the massacre, the U.S. Army had been “protecting” the Native Americans from the inflow of voracious miners, who had found gold on Indian land, by surrounding the Indians while the miners stole their gold. Furthermore, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse attacked only soldiers at Little Bighorn, whereas the American military, and especially the ruthless Custer, regularly used scorched-earth tactics to kill Native American men, women, and children and burn Indian crops.
In the Spanish-American War, the United States took advantage of the sinking of the Maine in the port of Havanaeven at the time, arguments were made that it was an accident, which later was found to be almost assuredly the caseto start a war against weak Spain in an attempt to grab its colonies in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.
In World War I, the United States took advantage of the sinking of the Lusitania by German U-boats to enter the conflictno matter that the U.S. was insisting on neutral rights for a passenger ship carrying weapons for the enemy of Germany through a war zone.
Although the hallowed World War II was fought against the ruthless Imperial Japanese and Nazis, the full story is a bit more complex. The Japanese didn’t just attack Pearl Harbor for no reason, and the Nazis didn’t simply declare war against the United States. At some point in the 1930s, FDR decided that he could not live with Hitler’s regime, so in the spring and summer of 1941, long before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he ordered the U.S. Navy to help the British sink German U-boats in the Atlantichoping that would cause Hitler to declare war on the United States. But Hitler refused to take the bait, and the German leader avoided declaring war on the American colossus until his ally Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. That Japanese attack was made in desperation, because the United States, then the world’s largest oil producer, had cut off the supplies of petroleum and other key materials to the island nation in an attempt to economically strangle Japan for colonizing China by force. FDR refused the Japanese prime minister’s attempt to negotiate an end to the dispute; the “Hail Mary” Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor followed.
In Vietnam, American history focuses on the North Vietnamese attacks on U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin, at least one of which was fictitious. Even if the North Vietnamese did attack, what goes unexamined was the secret U.S. raiding of the North Vietnamese coast, which provoked any attack.
In 1979, most Americans thought that the new diabolical theocratic regime in Iran just kidnapped U.S. diplomats and held them hostage out of spite. Long forgotten was the CIA’s overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian government of Mohammad Mossadegh and U.S. restoration and support for the thuggish and oppressive regime of the shah until he was overthrown by the theocrats.
In Grenada in the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan accused the Marxist regime of allegedly threatening U.S. medical students, who weren’t really in harm’s way, in order to justify invading the small Central American country.
And then there was George W. Bush, who unnecessarily invaded Saddam’s Iraqwhich had been severely weakened by Bush Sr.’s pounding of it a decade beforeon a bunch of trumped up-accusations.
American history vindicates the old saying that “truth is the first casualty of war,” but the passage of time should allow a republic to undertake a more honest and dispassionate examination of historical events. It rarely does, with truth being swept under the rug in favor of assuming uncaused indignities.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.
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