As a history teacher, I sometimes ask my students, “We look at the madness of the past—the Crusades, the Inquisition, Jim Crow, or countless others—and wonder how such things could happen. What is happening in the world today that people in future centuries might look back upon with similar confusion and revulsion?”
One of them is how casually America decides whether to bomb or launch airstrikes against other countries. President Trump was recently commended for calling off a missile attack on Iran 10 minutes before launch because he deemed the 150 deaths the attack would cause to not be “proportionate.” Apparently had it only been 73 or 41 deaths the attack would have proceeded.
Future generations will also wonder how the American people—despite enjoying one of the freest medias in the world—could have been repeatedly bamboozled into supporting strikes, military actions and wars based on dubious or fallacious government claims. Many US commentators have been taking Trump’s claims of Iranian “aggression” as good coin. Over a century of American history tells us we should be skeptical.
The public is aware of the lies and manipulations used to justify invading Iraq in 2003, but there was deception in the previous war against Iraq also. After Iraq took over Kuwait, the US showed Saudi Arabian leaders footage of Iraqi troops that was doctored to make it appear as if Iraq was poised to invade Saudi Arabia. The Saudis then accepted large-scale US troop deployments. Iraq was instead building defensive fortifications and had no discernible aggressive intentions against Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, the famous allegation of Iraqi troops ripping Kuwaiti babies out of incubators and, as President Bush claimed, leaving them “scattered like firewood across the floor” was later found to have been a hoax. And it’s questionable Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would have invaded Kuwait in the first place if America hadn’t led him to believe that the US, which had supported Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, would not oppose him. Shortly before the invasion U.S. ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie told Hussein and Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, “[W]e have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.”
American pretexts for invading Panama (1989) and Grenada (1983) were also misleading. Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was the thug and drug trafficker President Bush accused him of being, yet the US had known this for years while Noriega was our ally and on our payroll. President Reagan’s pretext for invading Grenada was to save the 600 U.S. medical students on the island—students who were in no danger and had no need of rescue.
Many know of President Johnson’s Gulf of Tonkin deception, which led to American troops being committed to Vietnam. What many don’t know is, the war was caused in large part because the US and Ngo Dinh Diem, the South Vietnamese dictator the US installed, refused to permit the reunification elections mandated in the 1954 Geneva Peace Accords. As the Pentagon Papers revealed, President Eisenhower and Diem refused to hold the election because it was clear the South would lose. It’s not surprising that the Communists, deprived of unifying Vietnam through an election they surely would have won, took up armed struggle instead.
The United States entered World War I largely on the pretext of “freedom of the seas” and the fact that Germany had been sinking American ships. Yet the only ships Germany was sinking were ships in the war zone bringing weapons, ammunition, and supplies to Germany’s enemy, Britain. At the same time, Britain had a naval blockade on Germany that violated international law and led to the death by starvation of over half a million Germans.
Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty of Britain in 1914, said the blockade’s goal was to "starve the whole population — men, women, and children, old and young, wounded and sound — into submission." Germany’s response was hardly unreasonable.
In the 1840s, Southern leaders sought Mexico’s Northern territories so they could expand slavery westward. President James Polk sent American troops into territory Mexico legitimately considered to be theirs, where—to no one’s surprise—they were attacked by the Mexican Army. Polk declared, “American blood has been shed on American soil” and asked for and got a declaration of war.
Some politicians saw through this. For example, Congressman Abraham Lincoln introduced his Spot Resolutions, demanding that Polk show Congress the spot on the map where Mexico had attacked the US “on American soil.”
The US won the war and took 41% of Mexico’s territory. Ulysses S. Grant called the Mexican-American War “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.”
To be fair, Trump’s claims of Iranian “aggression” could turn out to have some factual basis. Certainly launching air strikes and deceiving America into wars has been a truly bipartisan effort. It was president Obama, for example, who greatly escalated drone warfare. But one thing is certain — future generations will marvel at episodes such as this.