John Marciano / Peace in Our Times @ Veterans For Peace – 2017-09-30 17:59:02
The Noble Cause Principle and the Actual History
Far from being a moral actor on the world stage,
the United States has a history of expansionism and genocide
John Marciano / Peace in Our Times @ Veterans For Peace
Excerpted from “The American War in Vietnam: Crime or Commemoration?”
As he escalated the American War in Vietnam in the 1960s,
President Lyndon Johnson defended it in Noble Cause terms:
‘We have no territory there, nor do we seek any . . . .
We want nothing for ourselves . . .
we fight for values and we fight for principles.’
A powerful and fundamental belief has marked US history: it is the Exceptional Nation chosen to lead the world. This belief is the essential foundation for the Noble Cause principle that justifies US foreign policy, and the American War in Vietnam in particular. The fundamental lessons of the American War should be viewed within the context of this principle.
The actual history of this nation, however, reveals it as a total lie. This principle has dominated political views about this country, however, as reflected below by the following proclamations of this faith, beginning with the great American writer Herman Melville.
In the mid-19th century, the Noble Cause principle was articulated by the narrator in Melville’s novel, WhiteJacket:
“We Americans are the peculiar chosen people — the Israel of our time; we bear the arc of liberties of the world. . . .
God has predestined, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls . . . . We are the pioneers of the world; the advance-guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path in the New World that is ours.”
In 1900, Sen. Albert Beveridge proclaimed the principle during the US imperialist war against the Philippines:
“We are the ruling race of the world. . . . We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee, under God of the civilization of the world. . . . He has marked us as his chosen people. . . . He has made us adept in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples.”
As he escalated the American War in Vietnam in the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson defended it in Noble Cause terms:
“We have no territory there, nor do we seek any. . . . We want nothing for ourselves . . . we fight for values and we fight for principles.” The United States, “uniquely blessed with surpassing riches and an exceptional history, stands above the international system, not within it. Alone among nations, she stands ready to be the bearer of the law.”
Henry Kissinger, National Security Adviser to Richard Nixon during the American War in Vietnam, stated that the United States acts for “the well-being of all mankind. . . . Americans have always seen their role in the world as the outward manifestation of an inward state of grace.”
President Ronald Reagan was a true believer in the Noble Cause. Americans “have never been aggressors. We have always struggled to defend freedom and democracy. We have no territorial ambitions. We occupy no countries.”
Reagan’s Vice President George H.W. Bush stated:
“A world once divided into two armed camps now recognizes one sole and preeminent superpower: the United States of America. And they regard this with no dread. For the world trusts us with power — and the world is right. They trust us to be on the side of decency. They trust us to do what’s right.”
Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton, continued the Noble Cause celebration:
“America’s ideals . . . are more and more the aspirations of people everywhere in the world. It is the power of our ideas . . . that makes America a uniquely trusted nation.”
Madeleine Albright, Clinton’s secretary of State, proclaimed:
“The United States is good. We try to do our best everywhere.”
After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush stated:
“America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.”
In 2011, President Barack Obama stated:
“America remains the one indispensable nation, and the world needs a strong America. . . . We’re a nation that brings our enemies to justice while adhering to the rule of law, and respecting the rights of all citizens. We protect our own freedom and prosperity by extending it to others.”
In 2013, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed her President:
“We are the indispensible nation. We are the force for progress, prosperity, and peace.”
What if someone with a documented history of violence against others thought of himself as exceptional, chosen by destiny or God? People would rightfully reject this self-proclaimed greatness and justice toward others, and reasonably conclude that the person making such claims was dangerous or unstable. Many citizens, however, seem incapable of applying this common sense to this nation’s leaders.
The Actual History
Matthew Rothschild, editor of The Progressive, offers a reality check to the propaganda that the US government is a benevolent and shining beacon for the world — with a focus on the recent past.
“Well, let’s see: The United States led the world to the cliffs of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War. The United States invaded one Latin American country after another, and subverted other governments there covertly. The United States helped overthrow governments in Ghana and the Congo, and supported racist forces in southern Africa.
“The United States plunged into the Korean War, and then supported one dictator after another in South Korea. . . . And the United States supported Suharto in Indonesia, who killed nearly a million people, some at the behest of the CIA, after taking power in 1965.
The United States also supported Suharto’s invasion of East Timor 10 years later, which took another 200,000 lives . . . . Obama can call that ‘global security,’ if he wants to, but it’s dripping red . . . . The United States has invaded or overthrown dozens of countries in the last six decades, and it doesn’t need to occupy them if it can install a puppet regime instead.”
Commenting on the commonsense view about Noble Cause claims, scholar and activist Robert Jensen questions the dominant story about the United States, “the model of, and the vehicle for, peace, freedom, and democracy in the world.” This story can only be believed, however, “by people sufficiently insulated from the reality of US actions abroad to maintain such illusions.”
Vietnam veteran and historian Andrew Bacevich challenges the guiding premises of the Noble Cause principle in US foreign policy, particularly the political leaders “who have demonstrated their intention [to] reshape the world in accordance with American interests and values.”
The Noble Cause principle, promoted by presidents and other powerful government officials, the corporate mass media, influential intellectuals, and the educational system, is at the heart of the Commemoration of the American War in Vietnam [a $65 million 13-year Pentagon campaign to rewrite the history of the Vietnam War]. But it is long on passionate beliefs and empty on evidence.
Its supporters, therefore, can only maintain their allegiance to American benevolence by omitting or rejecting the evidence, since the false story unravels from the start.
According to historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz:
“US history cannot be understood without dealing with the genocide that the United States committed against Indigenous peoples. From the colonial period through the founding of the United States and continuing in the 21st century, this has entailed torture, terror, sexual abuse, massacres, systematic military occupations, removals of Indigenous peoples from their ancestral territories, and removals of Indigenous children to military-like boarding schools.
“The absence of even the slightest note of regret or tragedy in the annual celebration of the US independence betrays a deep disconnect in the consciousness of US Americans.”
Essentially, she argues, the United States has been “fundamentally imperialist” from its origin, “rather than imperialism being a divergence from a well-intentioned path.”
The European settlement in America from the colonial period, writes historian Richard Drinnon, is based on the philosophy of “Indian-hating,” a form of “white hostility that for four centuries had exterminated ‘savages’ who stood in the path of Anglo-American expansion.”
The massacres that were committed “in Vietnam’s ‘Indian country’ in the 1960s [at] My Lai and all the forgotten My Khes” followed logically from those committed against Native Americans here and against Filipinos in the early 20th century.
What has been referred to as “Indian removal,” therefore, is the foundation of ethnic cleansing upon which US history is based. The atrocities that are part of this “defining and enabling experience” are not exceptions to an otherwise humane and Noble Cause history, they are essential to it.
At the time of the US War of Independence in the late 1770s, for example, aggression into what is now the northeast United States was blocked by the nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. Scholars have pointed out that the confederacy’s democratic governance structure “not only predated the United States Constitution but also influenced the evolution and development of the ideas that shaped the document, as well as other fundamental expressions of the American character.”
Evidence of this influence “is clearly present in the colonial, revolutionary, and early records of the United States and in the oral and written traditions of the Iroquois.”
Despite this rich history and culture, Gen. George Washington, in May 1779, instructed Maj. Gen. John Sullivan to attack those nations of the confederacy that sided with the British during the US War of Independenceâ€“the Seneca and Mohawk — and those that tried to remain neutral, the Cayuga, Tuscarora, and Onondaga. Only “the Christianized Oneidas” supported the colonial “separatist settlers.”
Washington instructed Maj. Gen. Sullivan “to take [preemptive] action against” these nations. He told Sullivan to:
“lay waste to all the settlements around . . . that the country may not be merely overrun but destroyed . . . . You will not by any means, listen to any overtures of peace before the total ruin of their settlements. . . . Our future security will be in their inability to injure us . . . and in the terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them.”
“The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.”
How many students, teachers, and citizens know about Washington’s scorched-earth campaign against the Iroquois? Vietnam veteran S. Brian Willson writes that Washington’s direct orders to Gen. Sullivan “established imperial US military principles for centuries to come.”
1) total war/genocide targeting all inhabitants for elimination;
2) preventing peace;
3) pre-emptive war;
5) crime of self-defense;
Willson points out that Sullivan’s campaign has been called “‘the most ruthless application of a scorched-earth policy’ in US history,” on a par with Sherman’s Civil War march to the sea, Gen. Curtis LeMay’s re-bombing of North Korea, and the American search-and-destroy missions in Vietnam.
According to historian David Stannard, the aggression against Native Americans who lived in North America (excluding Mexico) was a genocidal assault without parallel in human history. From the first European arrival in North America to the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890, “between 97 and 99 percent of North America’s native peoples were killed.”
Most political leaders supported this horrific assault, but “few did so with such evident glee” as President Andrew Jackson, who once ordered his troops “to slay all the Indian children they could find, once they had killed the women and men”; who once “supervised the mutilation of 800 or so Creek Indian corpses — the bodies of men, women, and children that he and his men had massacred.”
Jackson ordered his troops “specifically seek out and systematically kill Indian women and children who were in hiding in order to complete their extermination.”
In what is known as the Trail of Tears, President Jackson ordered the forced removal of tens of thousands of Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muskogee, and Seminole from their homes in the Southeast to the Indian Territory — now Oklahoma.
Although the US government granted this land to the Five Nations forever after they had been brutally removed from their original homes, this was just another promise that was broken as thousands of white settlers rushed in and claimed Native American lands.
The Trail of Tears ethnic cleansing opened up some 25 million acres of land for white settlement, slavery, land speculation, and cotton production. The overall death toll from this “presidentially ordered death march . . . was almost as destructive as the Bataan Death March of 1942. . . .” More than eight thousand Cherokee “died as a result of their expulsion from their homeland. The death rate for the Creeks, Seminoles, and Cherokee was equal to that of Jews in Germany, Hungary, and Romania between 1939 and 1945.”
Jackson is the preeminent gure in the early US history of genocide, “the archetype Indian killer, slave trader, speculator, merchant and then president, . . . as whites took over much of present southern states.”
His murderous and genocidal brutality clearly contradicts the Noble Cause principle. He claimed that the Indian Removal Act of 1830 that led to the Trail of Tears would advance the Native Americans “from barbarism to the habits of enjoyments of civilized life,” as if he were a deeply concerned and humane person:
“Toward the aborigines of the country no one can indulge a more friendly feeling than myself, or would go further in attempts to reclaim them from their wandering habits and make them a happy, prosperous people.”
After a particularly brutal attack that killed Cherokee who had resisted removal, Jackson told Congress: “Severe as is the lesson to the Indians, it was rendered necessary by their unprovoked aggression.”
This rationale would be repeated in later US violence around the world, as resistance became “aggression” that would later de ne the victimizer-victim relationship in Vietnam: Those who resisted US aggression were called “terrorists,” while the US forces that invaded that country were defending themselves and the “Free World.”
Alongside the imperial destruction of Native American nations came economic, political, and military aggression against Latin America that began very early in US history and has continued to the present with more than 50 years of economic embargo and terrorism against Cuba — condemned by virtually every state in the United Nations.
Journalist-scholar Juan Gonzalez, former State Department official William Blum, and historian Greg Grandin document this violent, imperial history. Gonzalez points out that US presidents such as Jefferson, Jackson, and Theodore Roosevelt, all firm believers in white supremacy, “regarded [US] domination of the region as ordained by nature.
The main proponents and beneficiaries of this empire building, however, were speculators, plantation owners, banks, and merchants, who bankrolled armed rebellions in those Spanish-speaking lands by white settlers.”
Historian Greg Grandin points out that by the mid20th century alone, the United States had sent its warships into Latin America more than 6,000 times, invaded numerous countries; engaged in long guerrilla wars in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Haiti; annexed Puerto Rico; and stolen part of Colombia “to create both the Panamanian nation and the Panama Canal.”
Added to these, “American corporations and financial houses came to dominate the economies of Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America, as well as large parts of South America,” commencing “their overseas expansion before they headed elsewhere, to Asia, Africa, and Europe.”
In his analyses of US history, Andrew Bacevich has exposed a central premise of the Noble Cause principle: “The restless search for a buck and the ruthless elimination of anyone — or anything — standing in the way . . . have been central to the American character.”
This “American character” applies to European settlers and their descendants, however, not Native Americans, since this “restless search” has not been central to their culture. “If the young United States had a mission,” writes Bacevich, “it was not to liberate but to expand.”
From the beginning, the United States compulsively expanded and “the historical record leaves no room for debate” on how this was done: ” . . . by any means necessary,” including “full-scale invasions [and] ethnic cleansing.” This record totally contradicts the mythical Noble Cause view we have been taught about post-independence expansion.
Moving ahead into the mid-20th century and the present, it is clear that the beliefs about Washington’s Noble Cause principle after the Second World War do not match the facts. William Blum has compiled the extensive and factual list of US imperial violence during this period. It includes an extraordinary number of unprovoked invasions and covert actions against sovereign nations — what is now called “regime change.”
Excluding his list of Latin American countries above, it includes Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Congo, Greece, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Laos, Libya, the Soviet Union, Syria Vietnam, and Yugoslavia. As he states: “It would, moreover, be difficult to name a single brutal dictatorship of the second half of the 20th century that was not supported by the United States; not only supported, but often put into power and kept in power against the wishes of the population.”
There is overwhelming evidence to support the scholars’ assertions made above; however, historian and political activist Michael Parenti argues that the dominant class and its allies in the corporate media, political system, and universities refuse to admit that US leaders “have been the greatest purveyors of terrorism throughout the world.”
The facts are quite clear: the United States and its “surrogate mercenaries have unleashed terror bombing campaigns against unarmed civilian populations . . . in scores of countries, causing death and destruction to millions of innocents.”
Since the Second World War, the greatest US violence has been in Asia — concluding with Vietnam. This included crushing the Huk (Hukbalahap) rebellion in the Philippines, a peasant-led guerrilla movement that led resistance against the Japanese in the Second World War and continued the struggle against a government elite that had collaborated with the Japanese during that conflict.
Using Cold War propaganda that the Huk were communists, the US military aided the campaign to destroy them by 1954. This period also witnessed the occupation of South Korea and support for the repressive anticommunist Syngman Rhee, whose policies were similar to the US-installed Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam and helped trigger the devastating Korean War that included bombing North Korea “back to the Stone Age.”
In 1965, the very same year the United States escalated the war in Vietnam, the United States through the CIA aided in the massacre of perhaps 500,000 Communists, alleged Communists, and other progressive activists during a military coup in Indonesia, one of the greatest mass murders in history.
The late historian Gabriel Kolko writes that it was “certainly one of the most barbaric acts of inhumanity in a century that has seen a great deal of it; it surely ranks as a war crime of the same type as those the Nazis perpetrated.”
Not one act by the US after 1945 “was as bloodthirsty as its role in Indonesia, for it tried to initiate the massacre, and . . . to see the physical liquidation of the PKI [Communist Party of Indonesia] was carried through to its culmination. Not a single one of its officials in Washington . . . questioned the policy on ethical or political grounds.”
Similarities between Korea and Vietnam include the racist attitudes and actions against people there that helped fuel massacres by US forces in both wars, e.g., at No Gun Ri in Korea and My Lai in Vietnam. . . . Too few US citizens know this documented record, having been disabled intellectually and politically — first in their schools, then by the corporate mass media and leading political officials.
During the Cold War, for example, US violence across the world, always masked as a Noble Cause, strengthened the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned of in his January 1961 Farewell Address. Five years earlier, however, the prominent sociologist C. Wright Mills analyzed this complex in his groundbreaking and powerful book, The Power Elite — a scathing critique of the institutions that later concerned the former President.
The influence of this complex, which Mills identified as an “economic-military” link, encompassing the all-embracing connection between the Pentagon, industry, Congress, and the academy, has increased dramatically since Eisenhower’s address, devouring trillions of public funds to support the ever-increasing power of the National Security State.
Decades before Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, Medal of Honor recipient and former Marine Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler addressed the nature of the US imperial violence and the military-industrial complex of his time, including his own role.
“I spent 33 years and four months in active military service as a member of . . . the Marine Corps. . . . And during that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism . . .”
This actual history is, and remains, the essence of US policy abroad — always hidden by the Noble Cause principle. According to the late writer and activist Mike Marqusee, public belief in this principle “obstructs knowledge and understanding of United States history and the pattern of its involvements abroad,” especially the fact that it acts “like any other imperial power, on the basis of self-interest.”
US interventions abroad are “presented as an altruistic response to a crisis. Since there is no American empire, no pattern, no habit, or system of extraterritorial domination, the motive for each intervention is assessed at face value,” thus denying the actual record. Marqusee laments the US Noble Cause:
“Culturally, emotionally, [belief in this principle] curtails human solidarity. More than ever, ‘America’ is a prison that the US citizenry needs to break out of — in its own interest and in the interests of the victims of US policy.”
The Noble Cause principle cannot stand up to the facts of endless violence that spans nearly 240 years of US history, or more than 400 years if the count begins with colonial settler wars against Native Americans. This history is the context within which to understand the American War in Vietnam.
John Marciano, professor emeritus at SUNY Cortland, is an antiwar and social justice activist, author, scholar, teacher, and trade unionist. He is the author, with William L. Griffen, of Teaching the Vietnam War.
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