by David Lorimer
The American Trajectory – Divine or Demonic
David Ray Griffin
Clarity Press Inc, 2018,
409 pp., $29.95, p/b –
This penetrating analysis constitutes the background or ‘prequel’ to David’s book Bush and Cheney: How they Ruined America and the World, reviewed in No 126 in April (p. 53) and puts one in mind of the bumper sticker stating ‘Be kind to America, or else we will bring you freedom and democracy.’ The starting point is the self-image of the US as exceptional, moral and a force for good, unlike previous empires. This rhetoric is still asserted within the political mainstream, for instance by President Obama (responsible for an extension of illegal US drone attacks) when he stated that “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.” However, Griffin also reports an interview by President Trump talking about Putin when he asks, “What, you think our country is so innocent?” provoking a rebuke from the New York Times for ‘drawing a moral equivalency between the United States and Russia.’
Replete with historical examples, Griffin shows the gap between moral rhetoric and practical politics and the indissoluble link between militarism and imperialism –America has 700 bases throughout the world. The overall thrust of the argument is that the trajectory of American foreign policy ‘has been more malign than benign, more demonic than divine’ (p. 31).
Beginning with an analysis of the elimination of Native Americans (whose population by 1890 had been reduced by 95% from 10 million to 228,000) he proceeds to describe interventions in the Philippines, Cuba and Hawaii, brutal invasions that are portrayed to the public as benevolent assimilation. The original ideals of freedom, self-determination and democracy are ignored when there is a conflict between liberty and profit or self-interest, the latter always prevailing, while the former continue to be used rhetorically for propaganda purposes. In practical political terms this is encapsulated in the so-called Monroe Doctrine where the US arrogates to itself a natural right to control the Western hemisphere and, through an ‘open door’ policy, to promote its own political and economic advantage.
There are striking and interesting parallels between US policy in World Wars I and II, between Wilson and Roosevelt. Griffin explains how Wilson, aided and abetted by Churchill, deceived the US people by claiming that he wanted to keep America out of the war ‘while doing everything possible to get into the war.’ The key incident was the sinking of the Lusitania, and Griffin’s analysis shows that the ship was deliberately endangered and was carrying highly explosive material, so that when it was hit by a German U-boat, it sank in 18 minutes, resulting in 128 American deaths; ‘a flame of indignation’ swept the country (c.f. 9/11) and enabled Wilson to argue that Germany had forced America to enter the war (there is further fascinating material on the detailed policies calculated to provoke Germany).
Roosevelt engaged in a similar deceptive strategy during World War II. He engineered a strategy to put Japan in the wrong, using the US fleet in Hawaii as bait to tempt them to act. When the attack on Pearl Harbour occurred, it was not a surprise to the US administration, but the officers in charge, Admiral Kimmel and Captain Short, knew nothing in advance; and when ‘on December 7 Washington received the information about the exact minute of the attack several hours in advance, General Marshall sent this information to Hawaii in such a way that it would arrive only after the attack had begun’ (p. 146). Perhaps the most disgraceful aspect of this incident is the deliberate cover-up and the discrediting the officers, much of whose testimony was omitted from the official report. Worse still, they were inundated with hate mail and called traitors, while other witnesses were intimidated into reversing their testimony, with one even thrown into a psychiatric ward and being told that “his testimony had better change or he’d be in the ward for the rest of his life” (p. 148). So it is obvious that the US administration of the time simply lied for political purposes. The officers were eventually exonerated (but only long after their deaths).
The chapter on Hiroshima and Nagasaki shows how the decision to drop the atomic bomb was political-diplomatic rather than military. Already by 1943, the government had decided that the bomb would be used on Japan rather than Germany, having learned that the Germans had given up their attempt to create one. Roosevelt was told that if the bombs were not produced and used, the Manhattan Project ‘would be subjected to relentless investigation and criticism’. Its real military purpose was to subdue the Soviets, but the result was the nuclear arms race. Truman knew that the Japanese would never agree to surrender unconditionally, whereby the Emperor would be removed and tried for war crimes. As one historian put it, Truman needed Japan’s refusal to justify the use of the atom bomb. The fact that dropping the bomb was not militarily essential makes its use morally indefensible as a brazen demonstration of power, and even George Kennan regarded this as ‘an indignity of monstrous proportions.’ Griffin asks rhetorically if America can still regard itself as ‘exceptionally moral’ after such an incident.
The CIA was created in 1947 to ‘promote freedom’ through covert operations, of which many examples are given, for instance in Iran, installing the Shah in a military coup against popular will and propping up a dictatorial and repressive regime. This historical background explains a great deal about the attitudes of Iran towards the US. It turns out that, in the name of resisting communism (defined as totalitarian) the US government lent support to authoritarian governments opposed to communism, but who also oppressed their people. George Humphrey is quoted as saying (p. 223) that the National Security Council should stop talking so much about democracy and instead “support dictatorships of the right if their policies are pro-American”. In both Cuba and Brazil, a policy of neutral nationalism was thought to be threatening to US commercial interests, and, in the case of Cuba, this drove Castro into communism. In Brazil in 1961, the CIA spent millions of dollars supporting candidates opposing President Goulart and engineered his removal in a coup, after which the American ambassador remarked that it was “the single most important victory for freedom in the hemisphere in recent years”; the CIA clarified that the change “will create a greatly improved climate for private investment” (p. 229), thus revealing the underlying motive. The net result was that this March 31 Revolution, ‘said to be necessary to prevent a possible left-wing dictatorship, ushered in an actual right-wing military dictatorship that, besides lasting for two decades, was especially brutal.’
Further chapters detail coups, campaigns, false flag operations and wars in Greece, Italy, Korea, the Philippines, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Iraq, Indonesia and of course Vietnam, to which a whole chapter is devoted. This was ultimately about US potency and credibility while also avoiding a domino effect in south-east Asia. One memo from John McNaughton at the Department for Defence (elsewhere referred to as the Department for Projecting Power!) stated that 70% of the aim was to avoid a humiliating US defeat affecting their reputation as a guarantor, 20% to keep South Vietnam territory from Chinese hands, and only 10% to permit the people of South Vietnam to enjoy a better, freer way of life – these figures speak for themselves, and there is an additional aim ‘to emerge from crisis without unacceptable taint from the methods used.’ This aim was certainly not achieved, with the dropping of 100 million tonnes of herbicides and countless tons of napalm bombs, all resulting in up to 4 million Vietnamese casualties along with 700,000 Cambodians and 58,000 American troops. Senator Wayne Morse remarked in 1967 that the US was going to become guilty of being the greatest threat to the peace of the world.
I will select one final theme among many others that might be raised: the failure of the League of Nations and the United Nations to achieve the stated aims. In 1883, my great-grandfather James Lorimer, a Scottish legal philosopher and Professor of international law at Edinburgh published his magnum opus: The Institutes of the Law of Nations. I have his copy with the printer’s bill still inside. Griffin devotes a page to his work where he proposed that ‘disarmament would not occur without the prior creation of an international government with the necessary military forces to provide security.’ This international government would be the guardian of the freedom of all national governments. In the cases of both the LN and the UN, the great powers wanted to preserve the right, as Rousseau had put it, ‘of being unjust when they please’, perpetuating a system of international anarchy based on national self-interest. Then the U.S. Senate did not allow the country to join the League. The UN is often accused of being ineffective, but Griffin shows that ‘it is ineffective primarily because it was intended to be so by its architects, the primary architect having been United States itself’, which naturally wanted to preserve its right to intervene for reasons of self-interest in the affairs of other countries, whether overtly or covertly. Hence a historian’s conclusion quoted in the book that ‘the protection of their own sovereignty and freedom of action seemed more important to them than permanent peace.’ This is still the case, and one wonders when humanity will reach a sufficient degree of collective maturity to reorganize international affairs for the good of the planet and the whole body politic. In this respect, please refer to my review of Nicholas Hagger’s books in the last issue.
The penultimate chapter analyses the US drive for global hegemony, even in terms of what is known as Full Spectrum Dominance, implying the weaponization of space currently ongoing. Policy documents supporting this drive have been developed since the 1992 Pentagon publication entitled Defence Planning Guidance where, according to Paul Wolfowitz ‘calculations of power and self-interest rather than altruism and ideals provide the proper basis for framing strategy’ (p. 364). These thoughts were further developed by the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), whose members recommended the removal of Saddam Hussein as early as 1998. The implementation of their foreign policy recommendations required a New Pearl Harbour, which occurred on September 11, 2001, and which is the subject of many other books by Griffin, previously reviewed in these pages. The 2002 National Security Strategy dangerously recommends pre-emptive action against emerging threats before they are fully formed.
I have only been able to include a proportion of the evidence adduced in this study, but sufficient to indicate the upholding of Griffin’s thesis that American exceptionalism in the sense that the US is morally superior to other countries is conclusively proved false. This does not excuse in any way similar behaviour by other countries, but the book is a major and necessary corrective to a self-righteous and ill-informed interpretation of US history and foreign policy. It is much better explained in terms of naked political and commercial self-interest than by the accompanying rhetoric of noble altruism in the name of freedom and democracy.