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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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp interest these days:
Other posts in the series “notes from our past”:
- Our futures seen in snippets of the past, 16 June 2008
- President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris, 7 July 2008
- de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
- Let’s look at America in the mirror, the first step to reform, 14 August 2008
- Can Americans pull together? If not, why not?, 29 August 2008
- A warning from Alexis De Tocqueville about our military, 7 August 2009