From a young age, Americans — like citizens of other nations — are indoctrinated with nationalism, the belief that the United States is the “good guy” in world affairs, even if sometimes making mistakes in the pursuit of its noble aims. We are taught the U.S. uses its military might to protect the freedom of Americans and foreigners, expand democracy and peace, or in simple self-defense.
While sometimes this is true, the actual history of American foreign policy is far darker and more complex. The view of our moral superiority, however, serves an important function for the State. With the glorification of one’s country inherent in nationalism and patriotism comes the belief that the lives of foreigners are less valuable than your own countrymen. So because the U.S. is in the right, it really doesn’t matter how many innocent people perish in the pursuit of its goals.
The History of Violence series takes a less nationalistic and more honest look at the reasons the U.S. uses violence and the kinds of violence it deems acceptable. The series raises a key question: Would Americans deem it permissible for other powers to do to us what we did to them, for identical purposes and using identical violence? That is, if Vietnam bombed millions of Americans to prevent us from electing a Communist government, if Mexico conquered half the U.S. for more land and resources, if Guatemala helped overthrow our democracy in the interest of its corporations, and so on.
Despite the more rosy picture of U.S. benevolence, throughout its history the American government used military force to protect its economic interests and global power at the expense of weaker (often defenseless) nations. Presidents of both political parties authorized hundreds of military interventions into foreign nations, particularly in Latin America.
The boldest tactics included invasion and occupation, aerial bombings, terror attacks and assassinations, forcing open markets, and enacting trade blockades using naval and air power. Other methods included secretly arming and training rebel and terrorist groups, organizing and supporting coups, rigging ballots, and arming and funding brutal dictators. Usual targets included popular socialistic and communistic groups or governments pushing for land reform to help peasants or seizing national resources from foreign corporations, usually American.
These actions killed millions, and led to civil war, totalitarianism, genocide, and dire poverty in many countries.
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To begin the History of Violence series, we will consider a broad overview of American military use. Later segments of the series will examine interventions in detail. Better known conflicts like the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the World Wars are not included here, though not because they are unworthy of critical thinking — indeed, some of these will be included later in the series.
Neither is this a complete list of military use, dictators or terror groups the U.S. armed and funded, U.S. assassination plots (even in places like Germany and France), etc.
The historical record of U.S. aggression and crimes against humanity is not featured in public school textbooks, but is readily available to anyone who bothers to look. The following overview draws from the works of World War II veteran Howard Zinn such as A People’s History of the United States, William Blum’s Killing Hope: U.S. Military Interventions Since World War II and Rouge State, the works of Noam Chomsky such as Hegemony or Survival, Manufacturing Consent, Because We Say So, Who Rules the World?, 9/11, Global Discontents, and Imperial Ambitions, Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States, a partial summary from Blood on Our Hands author Nicolas J.S. Davies, and convenient charts from The Evergreen State College (which includes U.S. nuclear threats and military evacuations of American civilians, which are not included in this analysis unless accompanied by warfare) and the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress (which also includes protection and evacuation of Americans, likewise not included here).
After the Revolutionary War and throughout the 19th century, the U.S. military wiped out Native American nations and forced survivors onto desolate reservations. All the while, the young nation participated in the mass kidnapping and enslavement of Africans, which drained the African countries of millions of innocent people. There is even evidence Britain’s moves to end slavery in the early 1770s contributed to the colonial leaders’ push for independence (Blumrosen, Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies and Sparked the American Revolution).
Foreign conflicts began innocently enough. When the United States refused to pay its debts to France after the French Revolution, France attacked American merchant ships in the Mediterranean and Caribbean (the 1798-1800 Quasi-War).
Indeed, stopping piracy spurned most of the first action abroad. The first foreign city to fall to U.S. forces (outside North America) was Derna in Tripoli (Libya) during our war with the North African (Barbary) states, which were sponsoring piracy against U.S. merchant ships. The Barbary Wars took place in 1801-1805 and 1815. The U.S. invaded Marquesas Island and established its first Pacific base in 1813. In the 1820s, marines stormed Spanish Cuba and Puerto Rico. Who could forget Commodore Porter’s vicious 1824 revenge attack on the civilians of Fajardo, Puerto Rico, who were accused of harboring pirates? The military hunted down pirates on Greek islands in 1827. They sacked Sumatra out of revenge in 1832. The Anti-Piracy Wars in the West Indies, Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico lasted from 1814-1825.
While Britain was kidnapping American sailors and forcing them to serve on their ships (“impressment”), the War of 1812 also had imperialist motives (expansion into Indian and Canadian territories) and economic motives (preserving trade with Europe).
In the late 1840s, President Polk, craving the conquest of California, used a skirmish between Mexican and American forces in Texas to justify a long-planned invasion of Mexico. American soldiers made it all the way to Mexico City, and Mexico was forced to surrender the land that is today New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California.
A common attitude of the time, not so different from the modern glorification of the U.S. under the doctrine of nationalism, was expressed by publisher John O’Sullivan, who wrote in 1839 that the U.S. was a country of “unparalleled glory,” free of the “crimes” of “antiquity,” “destined to manifest to mankind the excellence of divine principles” by bringing “glad tidings of peace and good will where myriads now endure an existence scarcely more enviable than that of beasts of the field.” And in 1845, pushing for the annexation of Texas, he spoke of “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence.” In other words, any U.S. war of aggression was God’s will. America is somehow special in human history, her crimes justified, no matter the body count.
Other military actions kept secure American business and commerce. In 1833, U.S. forces landed in Argentina to protect American interests during a rebellion, and did the same in Peru in 1835. The military was back in Argentina in 1852, again in 1853. Commodore Perry used displays of force to open Japan to U.S. markets from 1853-1854, even landing marines twice. Troops landed in China during civil unrest in 1854.
That same year, after the Nicaraguans insulted the American ambassador, the U.S. Navy destroyed San Juan Del Norte.
American interests were protected in Uruguay during a revolution in 1858, Panama and New Grenada in 1856, China in 1859, Columbia and Panama in 1860. From 1860 to 1889, U.S. forces landed, for various reasons, in Panama, Japan, Mexico, China, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Colombia, Hawaii, Korea, and Egypt.
At the end of the century, the U.S. seized Hawaii, took over Cuba from Spain, and conquered the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam from Spain. The war in the Philippines left 600,000 natives dead, countless atrocities committed by the U.S. military — such as the purposeful slaughter of men, women, children, and elderly people widely considered racially inferior. Against early machine guns, the natives were no match for the U.S.
Mark Twain lamented of this war:
We have pacified some thousands of islanders and buried them; destroyed their fields; burned their villages, and turned their widows and orphans out-of-doors; furnished heartbreak by exile to some dozens of disagreeable patriots; subjugated the remaining ten millions by Benevolent Assimilation, which is the pious new name of the musket; we have acquired property in the three hundred concubines and other slaves of our business partner, the Sultan of Sulu, and hoisted our protecting flag over that swag. And so, by these Providences of God—and the phrase is the government’s, not mine—we are a World Power.
The military also sent troops into Haiti to crush a black revolt against their slave masters in 1891, into Nicaragua three times, and into Argentina, Chile, Panama, China, and Samoa before the century closed.
In the first half of the 20th century, interventions increased. The U.S. military entered Panama six times between 1901 and 1958, interfering in elections, seizing the Panama Canal, breaking up strikes. Marines intervened in Honduras six times between 1903 and 1925, to influence the outcome of civil war and to protect trade. The U.S. invaded Haiti to open the nation’s land to American corporate use, and occupied it for 20 years (1914-1934). America occupied the Dominican Republic from 1916-1924, Cuba off and on from 1898-1922, Nicaragua from 1912-1933, and even parts of China from 1911-1941. Soldiers shipped off to Russia to try to dismantle the socialist revolution in 1918.
Major General Smedley Butler, two-time winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, remembered his time in the military serving the interests of corporations in his book War is a Racket:
I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street.
I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested.
The U.S. battled unionists in Guatemala in 1920, and helped overthrow its democratically-elected left-wing government in 1954 in the interests of American corporations like the United Fruit Company, which disliked Guatemalans hogging their own fertile land, plunging the nation into decades of bloody civil war. Later on, Reagan, aware of the genocide under the Guatemalan military regime, provided military aid in the 1980s, wanting the “Marxist guerrillas” and their “civilian support” destroyed. 200,000 people died from the 1950s to the 1990s. Reagan called one of Guatemala’s most murderous dictators, Montt, a “man of great personal integrity” pushing for “social justice” and “progressive efforts,” but was given a “bum rap” by human rights groups.
In 1945, U.S. forces under General Hodge took control away from the Communist Korean resistance group that battled Japan during World War II and had U.S. forces occupy the southern half of Korea. The U.S. installed Syngman Rhee as ruler of the new South Korea; he was a brutal dictator, killing and torturing Communists and dissenters, eventually destroying 100,000 lives. Rhee sought to invade North Korea, the same as North Korea sought to invade the South. During the Korean War (1950-1953), some 3 million people died, and the U.S. threatened nuclear strikes against North Korea and China. We bombed North Korea into ruin, even targeting dams and other infrastructure. Mass protests got rid of Rhee in 1960.
The U.S. helped command fascist forces (including Nazi collaborators) in Greece during its civil war against a popular leftist movement (founded by Communists) in the late 1940s. The leftists were defeated in 1949, and many were executed. The U.S. gave $2 billion by 1949 to Chinese dictator Chiang Kai-shek to help him defeat the widely supported Communist movement under Mao seeking to overthrow the dictatorship.
The CIA helped overthrow a democratically-elected government in Iran in 1953, and installed the Shah, a brutal dictator, partly over oil contracts. The U.S. then encouraged and aided the Shah in pursuing nuclear weapons, even allowing Iranian students to come to American universities to study nuclear engineering.
Marines crushed a rebellion in Puerto Rico and one in the Philippines. They swarmed into Lebanon in 1958. The U.S. also interfered in the affairs of Yugoslavia, Turkey, Mexico, El Salvador, Uruguay, and Egypt (the Suez Crisis) during this time. The U.S. recruited and trained Albanian exiles, including Nazi and Italian war criminals, to overthrow Albania’s Communist government.
The death toll grew since the 1960s. After Congo finally gained its independence from a foreign occupier, Belgium, and elected a prime minister friendly with the Soviets, Patrice Lumumba, the CIA immediately supported a coup that murdered him. Joseph-Desire Mobutu of the Congo army replaced him and ruled as a dictator for 30 years. He received half of all U.S. military aid to Sub-Saharan Africa during his tyrannical reign.
Between 1960 and 1975, 3-4 million people perished in Vietnam. After World War II, the U.S. helped a weakened France maintain its occupation of Vietnam, eventually taking over the effort to prevent Vietnamese independence, as the forces trying to oust foreign occupiers had Communist leanings. The U.S. installed barbaric dictators such as Diem and Thieu to maintain a firm grip on South Vietnam. The full onslaught of American bombs were justified by government deceit concerning the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and not only did the U.S. intentionally bomb peasant villages, it purposefully bombed rice fields and other crops — causing mass starvation. U.S. soldiers routinely gunned down innocent women, children, and elderly people — the My Lai Massacre was only one of many massacres — and engaged in rape, mutilation, and torture.
Up to half a million died in the U.S. bombing and invasion of Cambodia (kept secret from the public from 1969-1970; national security advisor Henry Kissinger said, “[Nixon] wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. He doesn’t want to hear anything about it. It’s an order, to be done. Anything that flies or anything that moves”), followed by some 2 million deaths under Pol Pot’s genocidal Khmer Rouge, which the U.S. supported when Vietnam marked Pol Pot an enemy. “How many people did [Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary] kill? Tens of thousands?” Kissinger said. “You should tell the Cambodians that we will be friends with them. They are murderous thugs, but we won’t let that stand in the way. We are prepared to improve relations with them.”
The U.S. ensured the World Food Program fed Khmer Rouge troops, and the U.S. military provided them satellite intelligence and trained them in the use of landmines. Laos, another former French captive, was carpet-bombed after three CIA organized coups from 1958-1960 failed to keep leftist Pathet Lao out of office.
The U.S. supported the Batista dictatorship in Cuba, eventually overthrown by revolution. As Davies writes,
After the revolution, the CIA launched a long campaign of terrorism against Cuba, training Cuban exiles in Florida, Central America and the Dominican Republic to commit assassinations and sabotage in Cuba. CIA-backed operations against Cuba included the attempted invasion at the Bay of Pigs, in which 100 Cuban exiles and four Americans were killed; several attempted assassinations of Fidel Castro and successful assassinations of other officials; several bombing raids in 1960 (three Americans killed and two captured) and terrorist bombings targeting tourists as recently as 1997; the apparent bombing of a French ship in Havana harbor (at least 75 killed); a biological swine flu attack that killed half a million pigs; and the terrorist bombing of a Cuban airliner (78 killed) planned by Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch, who remain free in America despite the U.S. pretense of waging a war against terrorism. Bosch was granted a presidential pardon by the first President Bush.
Bombing targets included petrochemical plants and hotels. Crops and livestock were poisoned.
On top of this was an economic stranglehold. The State Department Policy Planning Staff wrote that the “primary danger we face in Castro is…in the impact the very existence of his regime has upon the leftist movement in many Latin American countries… The simple fact is that Castro represents a successful defiance of the US, a negation of our whole hemispheric policy of almost a century and a half” (Chomsky, Who Rules the World?). Successful defiance explains the historical hysteria over Cuba among U.S. officials, as Noam Chomsky explains. That’s why they were willing, under Operation Mongoose, to use “decisive U.S. military intervention” for “final success” in their aim: the “overthrow of the target government.” Eisenhower and his secretary of state, by the way, lamented that Communists could “appeal directly to the masses” to “get control of mass movements, something we have no capacity to duplicate. The poor people are the ones they appeal to and they have always wanted to plunder the rich.”
In 1963, the CIA supported the Ba’ath Party’s overthrow of Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul Karim Qassem, who threatened British and American oil interests. Iraq’s new dictator, Ba’ath party member Saddam Hussein, became a close U.S. ally (the CIA had recruited him to murder Qassem). The U.S. government supported the 1980 Iraqi invasion of Iran. Reagan removed Iraq from the list of terrorist states so he could arm Saddam with military equipment—throughout the 1980s, the United States supplied Iraq with war machines and $40 billion worth of loans. The government sold Iraq biological and chemical weaponry, and the CIA instructed in their use. The Reagan Administration blocked U.N. resolutions condemning Saddam’s atrocities and use of illegal weapons. The U.S. military even assisted the Iraqis between 1987 and 1988. After 8 years, one million Iranians and Iraqis were dead. After the war was over, a war during which Saddam massacred Kurdish Iraqis and other ethnic minorities with anthrax, cyanide, and other chemicals, the U.S. continued to supply him with them. George H.W. Bush even invited Iraqi scientists to the U.S. for training in nuclear weapons production.
In 1962, General William Yarborough and his Special Forces advised the oppressive Columbian military, the general himself recommending “terrorist activities” against “known communist proponents,” which “should be backed by the United States” (Chomsky, Who Rules the World?). In 1964, we supported a coup in Brazil (Marines were ready to land in Sao Paolo to help) that installed a murderous regime that lasted 20 years. In 1965, the CIA assisted in an army coup in Indonesia — a struggle that eventually led to the deaths of half a million to 1 million people (the U.S. showed unwavering support to genocidal dictator Suharto).
In 1966, the CIA orchestrated a coup that got rid of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s anti-war, socialist president. Leftist prime minister of Greece Georgios Papandreou was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup in 1967.
In 1972, the U.S. backed the overthrow of the Philippine democracy and a coup in South Korea. The CIA backed a coup in Chile in 1973 that killed the democratically-elected socialist president, Salvador Allende, leading to the deaths of thousands and torture of tens of thousands by a brutal dictatorship under Pinochet. The American ITT corporation offered $1 million to the U.S. government to help get rid of Allende. Henry Kissinger called independent nationalism (self-rule that might lead to democratic socialism) a “virus” that could “spread contagion” to other nations (Chomsky, Who Rules the World?). He also said, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.” Elsewhere: “The illegal we do immediately. The unconstitutional takes a little longer.”
The U.S. supported the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975 — and was rewarded with access to East Timor oil. Indonesia, under the brutal dictator Suharto, killed hundreds of thousands of innocents, while the U.S. doubled military aid to him and blocked U.N. attempts to stop the slaughter. U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Daniel Patrick Moynihan, wrote in his memoir, “The United States wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.”
In 1976, the government backed a military coup in Thailand. At about the same time, the CIA aided the Iranian secret police in torture techniques. The U.S. looked favorably at a military coup in Argentina in 1976 that led to the deaths of 30,000 human beings.
In 1982-1984, the U.S. military helped crush the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Lebanon. Grenada was invaded in 1983. The Navy and Air Force helped destroy a nationalist government in Libya in 1986. The American military invaded Panama in 1989, allegedly to arrest drug lord Manuel Noriega — a longtime CIA informant and ally. 2,000 people died. In 1991, the U.S. backed the overthrow of Haiti’s democratically-elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and formed a paramilitary force to crush Aristide support. Throughout the 90s, the U.S. increased its arms flow to Turkey as that nation killed tens of thousands of Kurds.
From 1992-1994, the U.S. led the U.N. occupation of Somalia during its civil war — U.S. atrocities killed thousands. The Clinton Administration bombed Sudan’s main pharmaceutical plant in 1998, alleging it was a terrorist plant producing chemical weapons — without the plant, tens of thousands died of illness.
In El Salvador, totalitarian government forces that killed tens of thousands were trained, armed, and advised by the CIA and U.S. special forces. The U.S. Army School of the Americas was vital in this effort. As Davies writes,
Major Joe Blair was the director of instruction at the U.S. School of the Americas (SOA) from 1986 to 1989. He described the training he oversaw at SOA as the following: “The doctrine that was taught was that if you want information you use physical abuse, false imprisonment, threats to family members, and killing. If you can’t get the information you want, if you can’t get that person to shut up or stop what they’re doing, you assassinate them—and you assassinate them with one of your death squads.”
A U.S. cruiser in Iranian waters shot in 1988 shot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing 290 men, women, and children, which was on standard commercial air route—a naval commander on another ship thought the cruiser “hankered for the opportunity to show their stuff,” that is, a new weapons system (Chomsky, Who Rules the World?).
The military also shipped off to Iraq after Hussein devolved into an enemy by invading neighboring Kuwait to seize control of the Kuwaiti oil industry. The Bush Administration feared Saddam would also attempt to seize nearby Saudi oil fields — which were enriching U.S. oil companies. Tens of thousands of Iraqis died, half civilians. Even those who view the First Gulf War as a necessary evil may not know of how the U.S. treated its defeated enemy. Nearly 600,000 Iraqi children under age 5 died as a result of harsh economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after the war; U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Madeline Albright infamously said, “We think the price is worth it.” An “Oil-for-Food” program introduced by the Clinton Administration sought to alleviate the starvation. Food would be shipped to Iraq if Saddam would sell large amounts of oil on the world market.
During this era, the military also entered, for various reasons, Indonesia, the Dominican Republic (fourteen-month occupation starting in 1965), Guatemala, Oman, Angola, Iran, Honduras, Bolivia, the Philippines, the Virgin Islands, Yugoslavia (U.S. bombings of Serbia and Bosnia, instead of halting ethnic cleansing and civil war, made both worse), Haiti (the U.S. actually reinstalled Aristide), Zaire, Afghanistan (where the CIA engaged in the drug trade while funding, arming, and training Islamic rebel groups, such as Osama bin Laden’s, in their fight against Soviet invaders), and Nicaragua.
Noam Chomsky, in his book 9/11, reminded Americans of the terror during the Nicaraguan intervention:
Nicaragua in the 1980s was subjected to violent assault by the U.S. Tens of thousands of people died. The country was substantially destroyed; it may never recover. The international terrorist attack was accompanied by a devastating economic war, which a small country isolated by a vengeful and cruel superpower could scarcely sustain… The effects on the country are much more severe even than the tragedies in New York the other day. They didn’t respond by setting off bombs in Washington. They went to the World Court, which ruled in their favor, ordering the U.S. to desist and pay substantial reparations. The U.S. dismissed the court judgment with contempt, responding with an immediate escalation of the attack. So Nicaragua then went to the Security Council, which considered a resolution calling on states to observe international law. The U.S. alone vetoed it.
This was after the Sandinista Revolution of 1979 overthrew Anastasio Somosa, one of the most violent dictators in history, supported for over 40 years by the United States. The CIA recruited and trained the “contra” mercenaries (of Iran-Contra Scandal fame) to enter Nicaragua and commit acts of terrorism to shake Sandinista control. When the International Court of Justice found the U.S. guilty of war crimes in 1986, the U.S. simply declared it no longer recognized International Court of Justice authority.
Osama bin Laden publicly stressed U.S. military interventions in the Middle East inspired the 9/11 attacks, one of many reasons why U.S. officials publicly acknowledged intervention breeds terrorism. After 14 years of the War on Terror, Al-Qaeda now inhabits a more massive geographic area, its numbers significant, reinforced by new members radicalized by the war, and global terror has increased fivefold.
This was predicted.
After 9/11, the CIA, FBI, and international intelligence officials warned the Bush Administration that war would only breed more enemies and new terror attacks. A Pentagon advisory panel, referring to a quote from George W. Bush, advised, “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather they hate our policies.” A CIA official in charge of tracking bin Laden called the U.S. “bin Laden’s only indispensible ally” (Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects). Abu Musab Al-Suri, an Al-Qaeda strategist, believed that “the war in Iraq almost single-handedly rescued the jihadi movement.”
After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, also justified with State lies, American oil companies like Baker Hughes and Halliburton (favored by top politicians like Vice President Dick Cheney, its former CEO) received contracts to rebuild the Iraqi oil industry, reaping billions from resources on foreign soil. (British oil companies like BP also reaped the spoils.) Bush even had to issue a “signing statement” to the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act that declared he wouldn’t obey parts of the bill that forbade spending taxpayer money to, in Bush’s words, “establish any military installation or base for the purpose of providing for the permanent stationing of United States Armed Forces in Iraq” or “to exercise United States control of the oil resources of Iraq.” Also, rather than disarming Hussein’s most barbaric security forces, the CIA recruited them and used them for American purposes.
Thus far, the War on Terror has killed over 1 million human beings, with many millions more war refugees. Refugees from Afghanistan found themselves in work camps in Pakistan, where children were sexually abused and given opium to increase work output.
Suspected terrorists, most of whom turned out to be innocent, were tortured with sleep deprivation, rectal feeding, simulated drowning, beatings, sexual assault, psychological warfare, and so on.
In the 21st century, besides the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. helped disarm Albanian rebels in Macedonia, helped crush rebels in the Philippines, Liberia, and Haiti (it removed Aristide for a second time in 2004), helped the Colombian military protect its oil pipelines from rebel forces, aided a new Honduran military government after a 2009 coup…a government that engaged in the mass murder of journalists, unionists, and political dissenters, and went after Muammar Gaddafi in Libya — after supporting his dictatorship for a long time.
The American government supported a coup in 2002 that briefly removed Hugo Chavez from power in Venezuela, until he was reinstalled by a largely loyal populace. The U.S. was involved in a 2014 coup that overthrew Ukraine’s president, who was replaced by fascists that killed thousands to solidify their power.
Drone missile strikes against terrorists or national forces occurred in Yemen, Pakistan, Syria, Somalia, and Libya; despite the government’s assurances that drones limit collateral damage, for every terrorist that dies by U.S. drone, nine innocent bystanders burn with him. Thousands have died in this manner.
The U.S. supported AQI, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other extremist groups in their fight against Assad, the Syrian dictator (publicly acknowledged by the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency). The Pentagon predicted — accurately — that these groups would soon form something like ISIS.
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Perhaps some of these wars can be justified on ethical grounds (that is, if they would also be justified when roles are precisely reversed). That is up to each reader to decide, though that requires a deeper look at the true reasons behind our interventions (“stopping genocide” or “killing the next Hitler” is often presented to the public to stir up support for war, but is not always the government’s main concern) and the manner in which we fight (it is likewise quite easy for the State to justify wiping out innocent women and children in peasant villages if they “aided the enemy”). The History of Violence series will offer that deeper look at some of our wars, both well-known and little-known.
Unquestionably, these horrors did not occur because political rulers reluctantly yielded to massive pressure from the common people to drop bombs. On the contrary, it often took widespread propaganda, the relentless stoking of patriotic fervor, and cunning deceit, such as the lies behind the Rio Grande affair that sparked the U.S.-Mexican War, the Gulf of Tonkin incident that justified the invasion of Vietnam, and lies about weapons of mass destruction and an Iraqi link to 9/11 that launched the Second Gulf War. The decision to use the military is not a democratic one, not one made by the people.
And as General Butler mentioned, war often exclusively serves the interests of corporate powers. If a private business grows into a powerful corporation willing to use money to influence state decisions, to use its “exclusive political sway,” as Karl Marx called it, it can mean death on a massive scale. The pursuit of new resources, markets, and profits has unquestionably caused the deaths of countless innocents.
U.S. corporations pushed for conquest and empire. War opens new markets, and gives firms greater access to natural resources and cheap labor. In the 1890s, for example, there was much talk among business elites, politicians, and in national newspapers on the need to open foreign markets, by force if necessary, for American products. Overproduction was threatening. “American factories are making more than the American people can use,” one senator said. The U.S. needed “a foreign market for our surplus products,” according to future president William McKinley. The steel industry stressed overproduction “should be relieved and prevented in the future by increased foreign trade,” and commercial farmers demanded the same (Zinn, People’s History).
This influenced expansionist sentiment that soon took the U.S. military into Hawaii, the Philippines, Cuba, and other nations. After the military came railroad, lumber, fruit, sugar, and mining corporations. This pattern would continue in the future. Woodrow Wilson stressed in his 1912 campaign that “Our domestic markets no longer suffice, we need foreign markets,” and in 1914 Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan was pleased Wilson’s interventions had “opened the doors of all the weaker countries to an invasion of American capital and American enterprise.” Even after America lost the war in Vietnam, the head of a congressional committee said South Vietnam “needs foreign investment,” attractive because of its large, low-cost labor pool. “I also feel there is much profit to be made there. The combination of serving both God and Mammon had proved attractive to Americans and others in the past…. Vietnam can be the next ‘take off’ capitalistic showplace in Asia” (Zinn, People’s History).
Arms dealers and the iron industry supported war. Companies that make guns, planes, ships, tanks, and other military equipment profit enormously from war spending. For instance, the use of Raytheon’s missiles in a 2018 U.S. strike on Syria raised the company’s stock value $5 billion in a day. Helen Keller, Mark Twain’s friend, wrote before World War I, “The United States is preparing to raise a billion dollars and a million soldiers in preparation for war. Behind the active agitators for defense you will find J.P. Morgan & Co., and the capitalists who have invested their money in shrapnel plants, and others that turn out implements of murder.”
The U.S. spends more on weapons today than at the height of the Cold War; a slowdown would hurt the corporations that manufacture weapons. Since the heads of State are allies of the heads of business, there exists a profit-motive when politicians approve a budget heavy on military spending or decide to wage war. For instance, the budget Congress approved in 2014 allocated “$3 billion for weapons systems the Pentagon didn’t even request, but that companies like Boeing and Lockheed-Martin lobbied for.” The U.S. is the world’s leading supplier of weapons, meaning many of humanity’s wars are waged with tools bought from the U.S., reaping tens of billions in corporate profits. The National Security Council has flatly suggested military spending could aid economic growth.
Internal documents concerning natural resources such as oil build on our understanding of why the U.S. frequently supports dictators and crushes governments, many socialistic and many democratically established, that threaten to “nationalize” oil industries, meaning take control of oil production from foreign corporations. People’s movements in places like the Middle East that aimed to overthrow dictators, reject political Islam, and establish democracy were opposed, oppressive totalitarian regimes (like close U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, second-largest supplier of U.S. oil) embraced.
As a report to Congress by the Carter Administration said, “A number of countries with deplorable records of human rights observance are also countries where we have important security and foreign policy interests” (Zinn, People’s History).
In the 1940s, the U.S. government reached a legal agreement with Britain that would allow American oil firms to operate in the Middle East. A committee made up of State, Interior, Commerce, Navy and Army department members crafted a confidential “U.S. Petroleum Policy” that would “seek the removal or modification of existent barriers (legal, contractual or otherwise) to the expansion of American foreign oil operations and facilitate the entry or reentry of private foreign capital into countries where the absence of such capital inhibits oil development.”
By August 1945, a State Department officer was able to say that “a review of the diplomatic history of the past 35 years will show that petroleum has historically played a larger part in the external relations of the United States than any other commodity” (Zinn, People’s History). When Western Europe lay in ruins after World War II, U.S. planners cheered that the U.S. would hold “unquestioned power” in the region and aimed to limit the “exercise of sovereignty” (Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects).
In 1948, with the Mexican government seizing control of Mexican oil from foreign corporations, Secretary of Defense James Forrestal pushed for “the appointment of ambassadors with some business experience and background…who would vigorously and continuously push the interests of American business.”
In the same era, U.S. planner and diplomat George Kennan called resources in Latin America “our” raw materials, and the answer to securing them may be “an unpleasant one…police repression by the local government.” A “strong regime” was desirable, if the outcome was “favorable to our purposes” (Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects). Dwight Eisenhower called the Middle East “the most strategically important area in the world,” and the State Department called it “a stupendous source of strategic power” and “probably the richest economic prize in the world in the field of foreign investment” (Chomsky, Who Rules the World?).
In the 1950s, National Security Council objectives for Latin America included the “adequate production in Latin America of, and access by the United States to, raw materials essential to U.S. security”; also we must set about “convincing them that their own self-interest requires an orientation of Latin American policies to our objectives.” The State Department recommended the “exploitation of the colonial and dependent areas of the African Continent.” It went on to say that we must “maintain” our “position of disparity” (“we have about 50% of the world’s wealth”), but we cannot “afford today the luxury of altruism and world benefaction… We should cease to talk about vague and — for the Far East — unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.”
During the Vietnam War, the leaked Pentagon Papers revealed government preoccupation not with democracy or freedom in Southeast Asia, but rather tin, rubber, and oil. A National Security Council memo from June 1952 worried that “Communist control of all of Southeast Asia” would “jeopardize fundamental U.S. security interests,” and threaten “the principal world source of natural rubber and tin, and a producer of petroleum and other strategically important commodities.” In 1953, a congressional study mission declared Indochina to be “a strategic key to the rest of Southeast Asia” due to its “immense wealth” in “rice, rubber, coal and iron ore.” Kennedy’s Undersecretary of State, U. Alexis Johnson, said, “What is the attraction that Southeast Asia has exerted for centuries on the great powers flanking it on all sides? Why is it desirable, and why is it important? First, it provides a lush climate, fertile soil, rich natural resources, a relatively sparse population in most areas, and room to expand. The countries of Southeast Asia produce rich exportable surpluses such as rice, rubber, teak, corn, tin, spices, oil, and many others…” (Zinn, People’s History).
Concerned about independent thought and action in Central and South America, the National Security Council in 1971 warned that if the U.S. could not control Latin America, it would be difficult to “achieve a successful order elsewhere in the world” (Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects).
In the Trilateral Commission of 1976, Samuel Huntington of Harvard, a consultant to the White House during the Vietnam War, wrote that the country was “governed by the President acting with the support and cooperation of key individuals and groups in the executive office, the federal bureaucracy, Congress, and the more important businesses, banks, law firms, foundations, and media, which constitute the private sector’s ‘Establishment.’” He was not being critical of this. He believed there was an “excess of democracy,” recommending “limits to the extension of political democracy” (Zinn, People’s History).
Secret government memos reveal that when Arab nations cut off oil to Western powers in 1973, President Nixon was prepared to send paratroopers to seize oil fields in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Abu Dhabi. The public Clinton Doctrine claimed the U.S. had the right to “unilateral use of military power” to maintain “uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources.” In 1995, the U.S. Strategic Command said in an internal report that we should not “portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed” when it comes to nuclear weapons use, but instead it should be made obvious that “the U.S. may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked” (Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects).
In 1999, Dick Cheney told oil industry leaders, “The Middle East, with two-thirds of the world’s oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies.” Cheney set up a secret energy task force to plan how the U.S. could best control the world’s oil (Stone and Kuznick, Untold History). After 9/11, U.S. officials decided seizing Iraq would open the door to further interventions and tighter control of the region. As Stone and Kuznick write, “Pentagon officials foresaw a five-year campaign with a total of seven targeted countries, beginning with Iraq, followed by Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and the biggest prize of all, Iran.” In the National Security Strategy of 2002, the Bush Administration declared it had the right to launch pre-emptive wars against any nation that it perceived to be a future threat, and that no nation should be allowed to challenge America’s global dominance (see Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty).
Hillary Clinton wrote in 2011 of the need to open “new markets for American business,” that “a more broadly distributed military presence across the [east Asian] region will provide vital advantages…” Her State Department in 2009 allied with subcontractors for Hanes, Levi’s, and Fruit of the Loom to prevent a minimum wage increase in Haiti.
A 2017 U.S. Army War College study, while lamenting the decline in our “unassailable position of dominance, supremacy, or pre-eminence,” emphasized that the U.S. must prevent any “purposeful, malevolent, or incidental interruption of access to the commons, as well as critical regions, resources, and markets” abroad. At about the same time, the Trump Administration was considering remaining in Afghanistan over mineral deposits that could be extracted by American companies.
Mike Prysner, a U.S. soldier who fought in Iraq, called himself the “real terrorist” and the U.S. occupation the “real terrorism.” He continued, “Our real enemies are not those living in a distant land whose names or policies we don’t understand; the real enemy is a system that wages war when it’s profitable…” Vietnam Veterans Against the War, a group that still exists, laments, “Today our government is still financing and arming undemocratic and repressive regimes around the world”; the VVAW remains opposed to “senseless military adventures.” Veterans for Peace aims to “restrain our government from intervening, overtly and covertly, in the internal affairs of other nations” and “abolish war as an instrument of national policy” and move toward peace.
In his 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. condemned “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.” Since its founding in 1776, 241 years ago, the United States has been at war for a combined 220 years. 91% of our existence has been marked by violence.