Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn
Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn
Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn Left Coast by Alexander Cockburn

June 8, 2001

Things You Can't Say in America
FDR knew about the attack on Pearl Harbor

It doesn't matter how many times you prove it. Wait five years and you have to prove it all over again. Take Pearl Harbor. The fact that FDR knew the Japanese were going to attack is something that should by now be as solidly established in American historiography as William Randolph Hearst's famous order to his photographer, "You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war," (the conflict under discussion being the Spanish American war).

John Flynn made a sound case for Roosevelt's foreknowledge in 1946.  Relying on public documents, the historian Charles Beard did it magisterially in 1948, with his FDR and the Coming of the War 1941. John Toland wrapped it with Infamy in the early 1980s. Robert Stinnett made the case all over again a year ago with Day of Deceit. I can guarantee to you that about five years down the road, after the National Archives have released another truckload of documents, someone will be triumphantly writing that the case has "finally been made," and someone else will be whining that "once again the conspiracy mongers are at work."

There's no mystery as to why this should be. As Flynn and Beard both understood, FDR's manipulation of the attack on Pearl Harbor goes to the very heart of executive abuse of the warmaking power. Not matter how mountainous the evidence, the case will always officially be "non proven," "a conspiracy theory." For the same reason, despite a hundred proofs, it remains officially "non proven," time and time, that US leaders order the assassination of foreign leaders. By now, it should be as soundly based in American historiography as…as…Johnson's manipulation of Tonkin Gulf in the Vietnam War that the White House requisitioned (with only partial success) the deaths of Trujillo, Lumumba, Castro, the Diem brothers, Chou En Lai, Qaddafi, and  perhaps even the Swedish leftish prime minister, Olof Palme, though this one has never been properly settled or even mooted.

But because the actual practice of executive assassination runs counter to every official pretension of US honor and fair dealing, instances of its use or intended use have to be discounted. It's like torture, as a tool of US foreign policy in the field. Another no no. When the New York Times' Ray Bonner reported that a US intelligence official might have been present at a torture session in Central America his career went into a rapid nose dive from which it took years to recover and only at the expense of Bonner's political backbone.

Other examples? The role of the CIA in supervising and protecting smugglers of cocaine into this country in the 1980s. I write as the coauthor (with CounterPunch coeditor Jeffrey St. Clair) of Whiteout, a book on this same topic, subtitled The CIA, Drugs and the Press. Even though the CIA's Inspector General has himself issued reports ratifying the validity of these charges, the average press story will, to this day, refer to "vague charges never conclusively established."

The fate of Charles Beard tells us the cost that challenges to these core Lies of State can extort. Earlier in the century, Charles A. Beard was the lodestar of liberal American historiography. Books such as his Economic Interpretation of the Constitution  and Rise of American Civilization were among the most influential of this century. But they were respectable. They did not challenge core beliefs. The 1910 edition of his textbook American Government and Politics snooted isolationist ideas and talked placidly of cooperation with other power in "military expeditions."

By the 1930s Beard was changing. In 1936 he was writing that "Having rejected the imperialist 'racket' and entertaining doubts about our ability to make peace and goodness prevail in Europe and Asia, I think we should concentrate our attention on tilling our own garden." His last two books, American Foreign Policy in the Making, 1932-1940 and the above-mentioned FDR and the Coming of the War 1941 were written to prove that though the "appearance" of FDR's foreign policy was the pursuit of peace, the reality was the quest for war.

The liberals who had hailed him in earlier decades turned upon him with a vengeance. In June, 1948, The Nation entrusted Perry  Miller, eminent professor history at Harvard, with the urgent task of demolishing Beard's FDR and the Coming of the War 1941. Miller dutifully fell to his task, in a 700 word dismissal which ignored Beard's painstaking documentation and concluded thus, "As must every historian of this generation, I account myself a child of Beard. But in the presence of this work I can only pray to whatever divinity presides over the profession that I may not grow old and embittered and end by projecting my personal rancor into the tendency of history."

Frida Kirchwey, editor of The Nation, felt that Beard required another, more extended  thrashing and assigned Perry Miller the task of a longer profile of Beard. In  September of 1948, after homage to Early Beard, Miller sank talons of venom into Late Beard, reporting that "his friends plead that his deafness and isolation on a Connecticut farm shut him off from conversation, and that he nursed the scorpions of spiritual loneliness... He played into the isolationist line and into the party line. One can understand why, and even admire the massive sincerity, but somewhere in his mind was wanting a principle of coherence and perspective…"  Summoning every nuance of contemptuous Harvard urbanity, Miller concluded that "When it became necessary to expand the conception of reality to deal with a world process, it was Beard's mouth that worked by ancient memories, and the prophet of inexorable realities was left denouncing the history he had done so much to create."

Mark the crucial phrases, articulated by Miller amid the rise of the Cold War and the National Security State, "When it became necessary to expand the conception of reality to deal with a world process…" And he was right. Was not Beard a traitor to the intellectual duties of any properly compliant professor of history? He most certainly was. Gazing upon the newly emerging National Security State, Beard argued that when it came to Pearl Harbor and the entry of the US into the Second World War the ends did not justify the means. He concluded thus: "In short, with the Government of the United States committed under a so-called bipartisan foreign policy to supporting by money and other forms of power for an indefinite time an indefinite number of other governments around the globe, the domestic affairs of the American people became appendages to an aleatory expedition in the management of the world…. At this point in its history the American Republic has arrived under the theory that the President of the United States possesses limitless authority publicly to misrepresent and secretly to control foreign policy, foreign affairs and the war power." What did Beard mean by "aleatory"? The Latin word "alea" means "chance," the whim of the Gods, and Beard was trying to catch the flapping wing  of captious imperialism.

Just as FDR's foreknowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack is rediscovered every few years, so too is the fact that the Pacific war was a very nasty affair. Last Sunday the British Observer reported on  a TV series to be broadcast on Britain's Channel 4 this month, "containing disturbing and previously unseen footage from the Second World War which had languished forgotten in archives for 57 years. The images are so horrific senior television executives had to be consulted before they were considered fit for broadcast."

There's combat film of American soldiers shooting wounded Japanese and of using bayonets to hack at Japanese corpses while looting them.  "Former servicemen interviewed by researchers spoke of the widespread practice of looting gold teeth from the dead – and sometimes from the living."

The archival film is fresh evidence of the atrocities, but the atrocities themselves are an old story, best told by John Dower in his 1986 book War Without Mercy. In the February 1946 issue of The Atlantic the war correspondent Edgar L. Jones wrote, "We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying in a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter openers."

By the spring of 1945 the Japanese military had been demolished. The disparities in the casualties figures between the Japanese and the Americans are striking. From 1937 to 1945, the Japanese Imperial Army and Navy suffered 1,740,955 military deaths in combat. Dower estimates that another 300,000 died from disease and starvation. In addition, another 395,000 Japanese civilians died as a result of Allied saturation bombing that began in March 1945. The total dead: more than 2.7 million.  In contrast, American military deaths totaled 100,997. Even though Japan had announced its intentions to surrender on August 10, this didn't deter the bloodthirsty General "Hap" Arnold. On August 14, Arnold directed a 1,014 plane air raid on Tokyo, blasting the city to ruins and killing thousands. Not one American plane was lost and the unconditional surrender was signed before the planes had returned to their bases.

This raid, as much as the dropping of the A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was aimed at the Soviet Union as much as Japan, designed to impress Stalin with the implacable might of the United States. The Cold War was under way and as Beard wrote in 1948, democracy wilted amid the procedures of the national security state, whose secretive malpractices are still being exhumed.

And what did that liberal-left publication The Nation think of the firebombing of Tokyo, not to mention the dropping of the A bombs? The Nation's editor Freda Kirchwey, unburdened by deafness or seclusion on a Connecticut farm like Beard, was ecstatic, not only about the A bombs but about what she called (in March, 1945) "the five great incendiary attacks on Japan's chief cities." She lauded "the fearsome gasoline-jell M-69 incendiary," reporting to her readers that "the bomb weighs six pounds, burns for eight to ten minutes at above 3000 degrees Fahrenheit and clings 'tenaciously to any surface'," which sounds as though she was relaying a War Department press release. Kirchwey applauded these incendiaries as "especially effective in cities where so many buildings house subassembly benches for war production."

"Subassembly benches for war production." So much for the paper and wood houses of Japan's civilian population. Small wonder Kirchwey saw Beard as the enemy.

Epilogue: To be fair to Kirchwey, by the time the Korean War came along, she was having second thoughts about the A-bomb, and attacking the destruction of Korea in a strong editorial in The Nation, published on March 10, 1951.

Copyright © 2001 Alexander Cockburn

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Text-only printable version of this article

Alexander Cockburn, one of America's best-known radical journalists, was born in Scotland and grew up in Ireland. An Oxford graduate, he was an editor at the Times Literary Supplement, and the New Statesman, before becoming a permanent resident of the United States in 1973. Cockburn wrote on the press and politics for the Village Voice, and, all through the 1980s, he was a regular columnist for the Wall Street Journal. He co-edits, with Jeffrey St. Clair, the lively Counterpunch newsletter, and is the author of several books, including Corruptions of Empire and, most recently, Al Gore: A User's Manual. His exclusive column appears fortnightly on Antiwar.com.

Archived columns for Antiwar.com

Things You Can't Say in America

Pirates of the Air and Seas

What Sontag Said in Jerusalem

Kerrey, Blanton and the Liberals

Foreign Devil

Real Violence and Tim McVeigh

Said, Sontag and the Laws of Intellectual Safety

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