Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says there’s no question that Iran initiated the recent attacks on those two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. The evidence, he says, is “indisputable” and “unmistakable.” President Donald Trump weighs in with the same degree of certainty. “Well, Iran did do it,” he told Fox News.
Maybe. But our past is screaming at us: don’t buy it; you can’t trust your leaders when war fever sets in and war prospects are on the rise. Consider the history surrounding the run-ups to the Mexican War, World War I, World War II, Vietnam, and the Iraq war. Lies, misrepresentations, and manipulations abound in all those episodes.
As for those tankers, where’s the evidence? True, the U.S. Central Command trotted out a video that appears to show unidentified people in a small boat removing something from the side of a tanker—an unexploded mine, we are told by U.S. officials, who assert this constitutes proof of Iran’s complicity. As Trump puts it, “And you know they did it because you saw the boat.”
But that’s pretty thin stuff. The Germans and Japanese made that clear when they requested stronger evidence than that grainy video released by the Pentagon.
Now comes Politico with a piece saying the Trump administration has been making the case “in public and private” that no new congressional authorization would be necessary to go to war with Iran. They could simply rely on the 2001 authorization against Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks on American soil.
Leave aside for the moment the ominous threat this poses to the constitutional precept that Congress is the repository of the nation’s warmaking power. It also would preclude a congressional debate on the matter, depriving the nation of an opportunity to assess the facts before hostilities actually begin. The following historical episodes reveal the importance of getting those facts established before the country goes to war.
James K. Polk and the Mexican War: Contrary to allegations that have dogged the 11th president for nearly 180 years, it isn’t quite true to say that he lied. But he did declare to the nation that Mexico had “spilled American blood on the American soil.” The problem is that it wasn’t, strictly speaking, American soil. That territory had been under dispute between Mexico and Texas during the time of Texas independence, and America inherited that dispute when it acquired Texas through annexation in 1845. So it could be argued that Polk was merely expressing his view that that disputed territory actually belonged to the United States, just as Texas had always insisted that it belonged to Texas.
But such niceties of language shrouded the fact that, if there was no other way for America to acquire what is now the Southwest and California, then Polk wanted a war with Mexico. And he maneuvered events with a clear intent to force the issue, much as Pompeo seems to be doing now.
Polk sent an army into the disputed territory and planted it directly across the Rio Grande from the dusty little Mexican town of Matamoros, where a large number of Mexican troops were stationed. This was highly incendiary, and it inevitably led to a skirmish in which 11 American soldiers were killed and another 50 or so captured. Polk promptly sent a message to Congress saying the United States and Mexico were in a state of war and calling for a congressional war declaration.
South Carolina’s Senator John C. Calhoun, among others, would have none of it. This skirmish, he said, was a “mere local conflict, not authorized by either government,” and it was “monstrous” to blow it up into a doctrine that “every American is [now] an enemy of every Mexican.” But American blood had been spilled, and the country was riled. The final Senate vote was 40 to 2, with Calhoun refusing to answer the roll call. The previous House vote was 173 to 14.
There is plenty of documentary evidence, including Polk’s own diary, that the president wanted that war and that, by maneuvering his troops in such a way as to render bloodshed all but inevitable, he manipulated public opinion. Indeed, even before the skirmish on the Rio Grande, he was preparing to ask Congress for a war declaration.
Woodrow Wilson and World War I: There can be no doubt that Wilson was reelected president in 1916 (with just 49.2 percent of the vote) on his stated resolve to keep America out of Europe’s Great War. But it was all phony, as he’d always hankered to get America onto the world stage. It wasn’t easy keeping the United States out of the war through the election season, given delicate neutrality issues forced upon the U.S. by both Britain and Germany. Britain imposed a blockade designed to thwart all trade to Germany and the Central Powers and to ”starve the whole population—men, women, and children, old and young, wounded and sound—into submission,” as Britain’s pugnacious First Sea Lord, Winston Churchill, brazenly declared.
Wilson initially sought to wend his way through this neutrality thicket, rendered all the more difficult after Germany initiated submarine attacks designed to stop munitions shipments to Britain and counteract the blockade. But ultimately he favored the UK and took actions he knew would draw America into the war. He not only observed the British blockade but also allowed armed British merchant ships entry to U.S. ports, which in turn fostered a flow of American munitions to the Allied Powers. At the same time, Wilson declared that Germany would be held to a “strict accountability” for any American loss of life or property from German submarine attacks designed to enforce the neutrality that Wilson was flouting. This policy, he added, would apply even if affected Americans were traveling or working on British or French ships. After all, he declared, Americans had the “right” to travel on any vessels they wanted, even in wartime.
Wilson’s secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, warned the president that he faced a stark choice: either adopt a more evenhanded approach or accept the inevitability of war. Bryan ultimately resigned over the issue, and he turned out to be right. A desperate Germany, suffering horrendously under Churchill’s starvation policy, initiated unrestricted submarine warfare against ships carrying goods to Britain or France. Wilson promptly asked for a congressional declaration of war—and got it.
Franklin Roosevelt and World War II: When Europe was once again thrust into a dark conflict after Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, FDR almost desperately wished to take America in. But the country, still stung by the bitter fruits of Wilson’s previous intervention, didn’t want to enter the fray. “I am almost literally walking on eggs,” Roosevelt wrote to a foreign official, explaining the precarious perch between his own powerful conviction and the public’s aversion to war. “I am at the moment saying nothing, seeing nothing, and hearing nothing.”
But this wasn’t quite true. He was applying his stealth and wiles in every way possible to help Britain and nudge his country to war. He passed diplomatic secrets to friendly reporters to help the cause. He initiated secret depth charge attacks on German submarines in the North Atlantic. As Robert Shjogan writes in his book Hard Bargain, FDR almost certainly violated the prevailing Neutrality Acts by making destroyers available to Britain—an action that in another time and political climate could have been impeachable. And he maneuvered Japan into a position of near desperation in an effort to force a confrontation. That he knew what he was doing is evidenced by the fact that he initiated planning for the removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast even before Pearl Harbor, as John Toland reveals in his 1982 book Infamy. Shogan writes that FDR didn’t hesitate “to twist the law, flout the Constitution, hoodwink the public, and distort the political process.”
Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam war: On August 2, 1964, North Vietnamese PT boats attacked the U.S.S. Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. This could not have surprised those in the know inside the U.S. government. The Maddox had been providing logistical and electronic surveillance support to South Vietnamese forces engaged in raiding parties on North Vietnamese soil. Two days later, when it seemed another attack on the Maddox had ensued, President Johnson snapped into action. He asked for a congressional resolution authorizing him to counter such raids with military action as needed. This allowed Johnson to prosecute what became America’s disastrous seven-year Vietnam war.
But that second attack on the Maddox never took place. It seems that rare weather patterns distorted radar imaging and gave the impression of multiple hostile ships when none had been in the vicinity. When this was ascertained by Navy Captain John Herrick, commander of the Seventh Fleet destroyer division, he promptly sent a corrective message to Washington: “Review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonarmen may have accounted for many reports. No actual visual sightings by Maddox. Suggest complete evaluation before any further action taken.”
But action already had been taken, and Johnson administration officials weren’t about to turn around and let the opportunity slip. So they lied. Within days, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara traveled to Capitol Hill to assure lawmakers that the August 4 “attacks” represented ”open aggression on the high seas against the United States of America,” as Johnson put it. In response to expressions of skepticism by Oregon Senator Wayne Morse, McNamara declared, “Our Navy played absolutely no part in, was not associated with, was not aware of, any South Vietnamese actions, if there were any…. The Maddox was operating in international waters, was carrying out a routine patrol of the type we carry out all over the world at all times.” As Robert Mann writes in a footnote in A Grand Delusion: America’s Descent into Vietnam, “That statement was, as McNamara knew, false.”
Arkansas Senator William Fulbright agreed to manage the Tonkin Gulf resolution on the Senate floor largely because he had faith in Johnson’s veracity. As Fulbright’s staff chief, Lee Williams, later said, “He had no reason to believe that he was used as a dupe, if you will, and that this was a ruse on behalf of Johnson to get the authority that he needed to conduct a wider war.”
George W. Bush and the Iraq war: Did Bush lie to the American people about those weapons of mass destruction that the U.S. government expected to find in Iraq? Probably not. More likely, Bush and his people lied to themselves in their zealous efforts to fashion justifications for overthrowing Iraq’s leader, Saddam Hussein, and to ensure Middle East peace, protect the U.S. homeland, and preserve America’s regional influence. But officials have a grave responsibility to ensure extensive fact finding and sober deliberation in matters of war and peace. Presidents shouldn’t take America to war based on an oops. This was reckless behavior for which the Bush people, including Bush himself, have never been brought to account.
And it’s undeniable that the president and many of his top officials were bent on going to war against Saddam irrespective of the factual intricacies involved. There’s the rub. That invasion arguably constitutes the greatest American strategic blunder in at least half a century, perhaps in the entire postwar period. Those kinds of decisions require serious due diligence. So if Bush and his people didn’t know that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, they should have. If not malfeasance, it was abject nonfeasance.
The lesson: beware when our leaders manifest a passion for war. That’s when it’s time to demand honesty, sobriety, and restraint—and answers. The burden of proof rests with the war advocates. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go to war, just that when we do, it should be with our eyes open.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington journalist and publishing executive, is the author most recently of President McKinley: Architect of the American Century.
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