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Have Presidents Used Self-Created Fear And Hysteria To Justify War?

Written by | March 7th, 2013

The below, insightful, words, are from Chapter 10 of Judge Andrew Napolitano’s great book, “It Is Dangerous to Be Right When the Government Is Wrong: The Case for Personal Freedom“:

The year was 1941. Nazi Germany had conquered most of Europe and invaded the USSR. America, having suffered through the Great War and the Great Depression in the prior twenty-five years, remained staunchly opposed to intervention. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, although eager to enter the war against Germany, recognized this popular opinion and promised to remain neutral, so as to secure his reelection: “I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again. Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” This presented an obvious problem for FDR. In order to “justify” breaking this promise and intervene in the war, he would need a strategy.

His plan? Provoke the Japanese navy into killing American sailors. On September 27th 1940, Japan, Germany, and Italy entered into a mutual assistance treaty called the Tripartite Pact. The Pact required the three nations to come to each other’s aid and protection if one of the others in the Pact was attacked. In other words, if Japan attacked the United States, the United States would surely retaliate against its aggressor; in doing so, Germany would then come to Japan’s assistance. Essentially, the signing of this mutual assistance treaty gave President Roosevelt exactly what he desired: The window of opportunity to go after Germany. FDR responded to Churchill’s pleas to enter the war, “[Although] I may not [constitutionally] declare war, I may make war.”

Roosevelt had a number of ways to go about prosecuting this strategy. Shortly after the treaty between Germany, Japan, and Italy was signed, Lieutenant Commander Arthur McCollum of the Office of Naval Intelligence submitted a memorandum proposal to the director of Naval Intelligence, now known as the “McCollum memo.” The memorandum explored the United States’ options when it came to potential actions taken by the Japanese in the South Pacific. The memo included an eight-part plan stating, “It is not believed that in the present state of political opinion the United States government is capable of declaring war against Japan without more ado. . . . If by [the eight-point plan] Japan could be led to commit an overt act of war, so much the better.” Demonstrating adherence to and belief in this very provocation strategy, Roosevelt fired Admiral James O. Richardson, commander in chief of the U.S. fleet, who voiced objection to the provocation plan at the White House during a discussion with the president.

Part of this strategy involved sending U.S. ships into Japanese waters on so-called pop-up missions. FDR himself confessed, “I just want them to keep popping up here and there and keep the Japs guessing. I don’t mind losing one or two cruisers, but do not take a chance on losing five or six.” Keep in mind, two lost cruisers equal the deaths of 1,800 men—roughly the number of men killed at Pearl Harbor. Moreover, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson’s diary reveals the intent to provoke an attack when the United States issued an ultimatum to Japan twelve days prior to Pearl Harbor, demanding that she remove all troops from China and Indochina, and break the tripartite treaty with Germany and Italy. As Stimson himself said, “We face the delicate question of the diplomatic fencing to be done so as to be sure Japan is put into the wrong and makes the first bad move—overt move.

Further, the U.S. government began marshalling its resources in preparation for a full-scale war, including the purchase of “$3.5 billion worth of military supplies from automobile plants alone.” When questioned about the institution of the draft, FDR responded that “[your boys] are going into training to form a force so strong that, by its very existence, it will keep the threat of war from our shores.” As history would later prove, this was a complete and utter lie.

Eventually, FDR’s strategy paid off. The United States continued to monitor Japanese communications, but consciously chose not to prevent the attack. One such message indicated that the Japanese consul in Hawaii was sending information to Tokyo about U.S. naval ships at Pearl Harbor. Another, received just three days before the attack, contained the message “war with the U.S.” and suspiciously disappeared in Washington shortly thereafter. And when the attack did eventually come, all remained quiet and orderly in the White House. As Eleanor Roosevelt would later recount:

“In spite of his anxiety Franklin was in a way more serene [after the attack] than he had appeared in a long time. I think it was steadying to know finally that the die was cast. . . . [It] was far from the shock it proved to the country in general. We had been expecting something of the sort for a long time.”

What was the ghastly result of Roosevelt’s provocation and failure to prevent the attack? At Pearl Harbor, 2,403 Americans died, and 405,399 Americans were eventually killed throughout the course of World War II. As Bettina Bien Greaves, a senior scholar at the Mises Institute, has said, “The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor made war inevitable. But the attack was not Roosevelt’s reason for going to war. It was his excuse.

A brief examination of our country’s short history demonstrates that many presidents have used self-created fear and hysteria to justify war.

To garner American support for the “impending” Spanish-American War, President William McKinley touted the sinking of the USS Maine. McKinley claimed a Spanish mine caused the ship’s destruction, when in reality, the ship’s American captain determined that a coal bin explosion was the cause of the Maine’s sinking.

Similarly, President Woodrow Wilson created the illusion that his soon-to-be World War I enemy—Germany—fired the first shot at the United States, when in reality, Germany was trying to play fair. The German Embassy in Washington notified Wilson’s secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, that the British passenger ship the Lusitania carried illegal weapons and would become a German target in open waters. Bryan tried to convince Wilson that he should warn Americans of the ship’s danger, but Wilson refused to do so. He saw an “opportunity” in the form of lost American lives, which would present him with a clear and decent motive to enter the war. When the Lusitania went down near the coast of Ireland, 114 Americans went down with it. Thereafter, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan resigned.

Scheming like FDR, McKinley, and Wilson, President Lyndon B. Johnson provoked an attack to spark the Vietnam War, claiming that America was shot at first. To carry out his charade, President Johnson pushed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which was itself based on false reports of attacks on American naval forces, through a pliant Congress. In turn, Johnson built up American forces in Southeast Asia and eventually collected more than five hundred thousand American troops to fight in that catastrophic war. Millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians were killed and wounded in the conflict, along with fifty thousand dead young Americans. To what end?

Turning to the War on Terror, we see that the more things change, the more they stay the same; presidents in the twenty-first century lie just like their nineteenth- and twentieth-century counterparts. Throughout most of his presidency (and particularly after September 11th), George W. Bush purposefully inspired fear and anxiety in Americans through every channel of communication available to him: “We are in imminent danger of attack.” “The terrorists are out there.” “The terrorists want to destroy our way of life.” Bush and his team, not having presented any form of convincing evidence of so-called weapons of mass destruction, lied us into war with Iraq. Professor Robert Higgs elaborates:

“The 9-11 attack, then, is to the Bush administration as the Pearl Harbor attack was to the Roosevelt administration: an enduringly evocative pretext for whatever “retaliatory” measures the government chooses to take, even if, as in the present case, the retaliation is aimed in large part at parties who had nothing to do with the initial attack.”

In none of these cases were McKinley’s, Wilson’s, Roosevelt’s, Johnson’s, or Bush’s actions morally, legally, or constitutionally justified. Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution states that the “President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.” Nowhere does the Constitution state the “President may willfully and intentionally fool the people into war.

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