Another note from our past, helping us see our future

Sometimes history does more than rhyme.  It repeats because the structures of our government produces consistent outcomes, like McDonald’s produces fries.  Here is an essay from the past as apt today as when it was written.

In know of very few Americans as yet who have really confronted that question closely. And I think it is not too early to do so even though the war is not over — because some of the officials now in office are as “liberal”, as “humane” as any we’ve had in the past, and they are still continuing the war. Still keeping secrets well, still lying and killing. And I think they and others like them are likely to continue this for a long time, for many of the same reasons as in the past, unless we develop new standards both for them and for ourselves in our relation to them.

To go back to the question “How could we?” I think the answer goes back in part to an event we all remember in August 1945 … in which the USA ended a World War with an unprecedented act of genocide, unleashing the power of the sun on the people of Hiroshima.

… that event was not in itself totally unprecedented by the usual quantitative standard which we used, then as now, to measure such achievements; the body count. As a matter of act, the atom bomb did not kill as many people as the fire raids on Tokyo … These were things that we had been doing for several years. That period was an educational process for the US: it taught us that there were simply no limits to what was permissible for a US President to order and carry out — without consulting Congress or the public — once he determined that the stakes were sufficiently high. We emerged from that education potentially a very dangerous nation.

… In the 4 years after 1941 Americans learned: Hitler exists, therefore everything is permitted. There was no limit at all — we learned from our own actions — to what one could justifiably do against such an enemy: one who threatened our existence, who used deception and terror, who stopped at nothing — one who carried out actions each even more terrible than the last. … So it seemed very clear in fighting such enemies — in fighting for one’s life — that secrecy, deception of the public along with adversary, concentration of power in the Executive, mobilization of all resources, and the use of absolutely unlimited violence were all justified, even required.

All of this created a supreme experience for many Americans, but particularly for officials close to the President. Their role had come to seem absolutely central in the world. Ralph Bourne said during the First World war, of which he was a lonely opponent: “War is the health of the state.” But that is not true of all the branches and the institutions of the State. the role of Congress, for example, is much diminished, and so is that of the courts and of the press. War is health of the Presidency and of the departments and agencies that serve it … In no other circumstances can the President and his officials wield such unchallenged power, feel such responsibility and such awful freedom.

So what we learned — especially members of the Executive — in those 4 years from 1941 to 1945 was how exhilarating, in a certain sense, it was to have an opponent like Hitler … And we have not lacked for opponents in the years since 1941, as our officials took on what they perceived to be the challenge and responsibilities of leading half the world.

But since Hitler has not existed it has been necessary to invent him. And we have invented Hitlers again and again. Stalin made a plausible one; Mao, somewhat less so. Even Fidel Castro, ho Chi Minh, Nasser, and other nationalist leaders of obstreperous former colonies have taken on the guise of Hitler in the eyes of various Western power seeking to maintain their rule …

— This excerpt is from” The Responsibility of Officials in a Criminal War”, Daniel Ellsberg (from his book Papers on the War, 1972)

We are still inventing Hitlers — such as Saddam and Bin Landen — that justify our state of perpetual war and the Executive’s freedom from the constraints of law — both domestic laws and the laws of war.

About the author

Born 1931, Officer in the USMC 1953-56, serving as a company commander.  Harvard PhD economics in 1962 .  Worked at RAND 1959-64, DoD 1964-65, with State in Vietnam 1965-67, back with RAND (1967-??), then MIT (1970-??).  He released the Pentagon Papers to the public.


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Other posts in the series “notes from our past”:

  1. Our futures seen in snippets of the past, 16 June 2008
  2. President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris, 7 July 2008
  3. de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
  4. Let’s look at America in the mirror, the first step to reform, 14 August 2008
  5. Can Americans pull together? If not, why not?, 29 August 2008
  6. A warning from Alexis De Tocqueville about our military, 7 August 2009

7 thoughts on “Another note from our past, helping us see our future

  1. ““War is the health of the state.” But that is not true of all the branches and the institutions of the State. the role of Congress, for example, is much diminished, and so is that of the courts and of the press. War is health of the Presidency and of the departments and agencies that serve it … In no other circumstances can the President and his officials wield such unchallenged power, feel such responsibility and such awful freedom.”
    Boy, does this explain a lot of things or what? Thanks for the post.

  2. Some missing details are interesting here. First off it was reluctantly, persuaded by the British, that the US engaged in bombing German cities, and suffered horrendous casualty rates as a result, the worst of the war. The most interesting side effect was not the destruction of German manufacturing facilities in cities, nor the demoralization of the German populace (as always, the effort made the Germans fight harder), but the fact that the bombing diverted Hitler from attacking the RAF in favor of British cities, causing him to lose the Battle of Britain and never invade the island. In that sense it was effective, albeit in a way not anticipated.

    The alternatives to dropping the A-bomb were a protracted conventional bombing and blockade of Japan, which would have caused far more casualties than the two A-bombs; or, to invade the island, which would have caused still more casualties. It is therefore feasible to agree with Truman that the use of those weapons, horrendous as it was, was the least horrendous of the available alternatives.

    Once war begins, so does the cycle of atrocity, nowadays abetted by technology. The supposedly noble British have a long track record before World War II of atrocious behavior… from their treatment of Continental prisoners of war during our Revolution, through their kidnapping of American sailors decades later and their attempted literal genocide of Australian aborigines. Similarly, the role of Confederate treatment of Union prisoners in Sherman’s determination to end the Civil War, still our most costly, receives less historical attention than it merits. Essentially, atrocity is a necessary result of war, and the only question is how, and how much, and the morality is relative. This does not render the morality insignificant, some things are more atrocious than others, but it leaves no one, no society, no country, with purity and the moral high ground. The Japanese did more than enough to merit their fate.

  3. So, Greg, I kind of agree with you on the second point about the A-bomb being the “least horrendous” option, but I think we have to define that further.

    Least horrendous to the US. To our soldiers. It was not the least horrendous option for the Japanese, and I personally think it’s debatable if we would have done that to the Germans. I also think it’s debatable if this is a necessary outcome of war. I think it’s a very likely one, an almost guaranteed one, but for me I am not sure that we need view it as necessary. The Geneva Conventions and other codes of conduct for prisoners of war seem to suggest that we at least think we can do better.

    I agree that no government, at least, can retain the moral high ground, but was every Japanese civilian really culpable for their government’s actions? The Japanese were not saints, they have Nanjing to prove that, but maybe we need to think of Nagasaki as our own atrocity rather than a least worst option. To me the fact that we teach otherwise proves that the victors write history, not the moralists.

  4. Primo Levi used to say (I heard him with my ears) that when you entered Auschwitz, you had a tiny possibility to survive it; but when you were in Hiroshima or Nagasaki on the wrong day, you had none.
    The main difference between Auschwitz and Hiroshima & Nagasaki is, in my opinion, the following: that Hiroshima & Nagasaki (please note the repetition: one was not enough to persuade the enemy that “we are meaning business”) is cleaner, easier, smoother; it can be done out the the literal blue, from a conveniently far distance, by men who do not need to be, or to become, monsters in order to accomplish their task, “to obey orders”.
    They can keep their white hats on, while the Nazis, of course, must be or become creatures of horror, to throw babies into the furnaces (while atomic fire is so much more istantaneous, so much more impersonal, so much more blindingly overpowering…)
    Will America ever wake up from its ancient dream of Eden? From its longing for innocence?

  5. @Greg: do you have numbers to substantiate? I was under the impression that the fire bombing raids in Japan resulted in far more casualties than the raids in Europe (including Dresden).

  6. I remember the words of Scipio Aemilianus Africanus when he witnessed the destruction of Carthage:

    “A day will come when sacred Troy shall perish,
    And Priam and his people shall be slain.”

    One can only pray that we won’t ever have to witness another city perish the likes of ’em Jap ones. Then again, the prevalence of the equal horrors of bombin’ raids with napalm…

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