Monday, February 08, 2010

Conspiracies real and imagined (1): Merchants of Death and the Pearl Harbor Conspiracy

Kathryn Olmsted's book Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11 (2009) is an excellent primer on conspiracy theories of recent decades and the real conspiracies and government secrecy that form their historical background. And she makes the valuable point that in some cases, it's actually the federal government itself or some major agency of it that promotes a conspiracy theory for propaganda purposes. Those of us who were aware of public affairs during the last 10 years are not likely to forget the false claims of Saddam Hussein's dreadful weapons of mass destruction and his conspiracy with terrorists to use them to bring unimaginable death and destruction to the US and his own plans to send his plywood drones of death to wreak havoc on the American Homeland directly.

I'm going to discuss her book in four parts because her analysis is very relevant to understand the conspiracist Tea Party mentality of today's Republcan Party and to the Democrats' problems in convincing people that positive government can be constructive in the lives of ordinary citizens.

The First World War and its aftermath

Olmsted's account of the First World War calls attention to a couple of important historical facts that affected later views of the Wilson administration's role in that war. One is that Wilson presented the war aims in highly idealistic terms even though his government knew that our European allies Britain and France had considerably less lofty goals in mind. Downright predatory ones, in fact.

Another is that both during the war itself and afterward in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia (which occurred while the war was still in progress), Wilson's administration heavily promoted the idea that critics of the war and radical critics of American capitalism were engaged in massive conspiracies with foreign powers against the well-being of the United States.

The first one contributed to later suspicious about the value of the Great War (as it was then known) and the reasons for American participation. Congressional isolationists who opposed the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations were already skeptical of how the Wilson administration handled the war and American entry into it. By the 1930s, a generally anti-militarist consciousness prevailed in the United States, almost unimaginable in these days when elected officials fall all over themselves to show that they are merely following the desires of our glorious generals and admirals in military policy.

But it was widely believed in the 1930s that US participation in the Great War had been unnecessary. And that in fact, banking concerns - particularly the House of Morgan - and weapons manufacturers had been responsible for the country's involvement in that war. President Roosevelt even supported a Senate investigation of arms manufacturers which was headed by North Dakota Republican Sen. Gerald Nye. An actual bipartisan investigation of war profiteering. Imagine that.

Sen. Gerald Nye

The actual results of the Nye Committee's investigations were of mixed quality. But its work validated the beliefs of many in both parties and among many members of Congress that the US had been conned into entering the Great War unnecessarily. Later in the 1930s, isolationism in international affairs became an increasingly conservative and Republican affair. Olmsted gives a good description of the isolationists, including the America First Committee. As Roosevelt began to encourage rearmament in the face of growing war threats, the isolationists began to accuse him of trying to get the United States into war in order to establish a fascist dictatorship at home. In the 1940 Presidential elections, the Republicans accused FDR of being a warmonger, although Republican candidate Wendell Willkie supporter Roosevelt's position on the most immediate war-related issue, the Lend-Lease Act to support Britain's war effort against Germany.

Roosevelt and the Pearl Harbor attack

The prewar rightwing notion that Roosevelt was madly conspiring to involve the US in the Second World War in order to establish his own dictatorship formed the basis of the crackpot theory that Roosevelt deliberately planned the attack on Pearl Harbor in some form or another. The less insane versions of the theory held that FDR had deliberately provoked such an attack. The loonier ones had him knowing about the impending attack and deliberately allowing it to happen or even giving Japan permission to do it.

For a detailed debunking of the Roosevelt-planned-Pearl-Harbor nonsense, see two books by Gordon Prange, At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor (1981) and Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History (1986). And, no, there haven't been any smoking guns emerging since then that affects the conclusion. Did FDR know? by Judith Greer Salon 06/14/01 discusses the accusation.

Olmsted's summary of this is very good. I might quibble on a couple of points, but her chapter on the Pearl Harbor Conspiracy covers it well. She points out here ways in which the bureaucratic and political impulse to assign blame to someone else and to err on the side of secrecy and concealment gave conspiracy theorists gaps in the official explanations at which to point. Some of which are entirely legitimate. For instance, fully explaining the relevant circumstances of the war warning given by the White House to commanders in the Pacific including those in Pearl Harbor before the attack would require divulging that US codebreakers had cracked the Japanese Magic code. And Japan continued to use that code for years after Pearl Harbor, so the government had a legitimate need to keep secret that they had broken the code. As Olmstead writes, "The Magic cables would provide tantalizing evidence to Pearl Harbor conspiracists that the government was covering up the truth."

The notion that the Democratic President was treasonously devious and out to destroy the American form of government and harm the United States fed well into Republican attacks on the Truman administration in the postwar Red Scare and the McCarthy period. Olmsted writes:

The Pearl Harbor conspiracists looked back with longing to the [pre-Second World War] period before the United States had joined the perpetual war for perpetual peace.

Yet the early Pearl Harbor theories were not merely nostalgic. They also helped to construct a foundational myth of modern conservatism. In the mind of the conspiracists, Pearl Harbor demonstrated everything that was wrong with the New Deal: the "confusion, incompetence, wasteful extravagance, double-dealing and double-talking" of the expansive federal government, the GOP activist George Smith contended. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the double-dealing and double-talking architect of this oppressive government, had "lied" the nation into war. This is what happened, the conservatives believed, when the government gained too much power at the expense of the people. As Representative Martin Dies told Congress, "When any group of supermen or social planners get control of government and impose their fanatical beliefs, they become avaricious for power and they subjugate the whole body politic." [my emphasis]
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