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The Achievements of War Propaganda: Selling Military Intervention to a Reluctant Public


Contrary to the conventional wisdom that Democratic politicians must support policies of war and militarism if they wish to maintain popularity, the people of the United States do not like war. In fact, US citizens have been decidedly reluctant to support most major instances of government military intervention abroad, and have usually voted for politicians who have pledged to avoid military involvement or to extract the US from existing involvements. Woodrow Wilson was reelected in 1916 after promising to keep the US out of World War I. Lyndon Johnson defeated the pro-war Barry Goldwater in 1964 in large part because of his relatively cautious stance on Vietnam. In the 1968 election, Richard Nixon was elected after promising to get the US out of Vietnam, and because his Democratic opponent Hubert Humphrey failed to dissociate himself from the hawkish policies of Lyndon Johnson. Four years later, Nixon won again in part because he was able to cast himself as a peace candidate by proclaiming news of the impending peace agreement with North Vietnam. Even prior to the "good war," World War II, Franklin Roosevelt’s victorious 1940 campaign included a stated commitment to stay out of the conflict [1].

 

The public distaste for large-scale war continues to the present. By 2005 a solid majority of the US public favored a withdrawal from Iraq, with that majority climbing to 60-70 percent a year later and remaining at similar levels since [2]. Had John Kerry taken a more principled antiwar stance while emphasizing the security benefits of withdrawing from Iraq, he probably would have defeated George Bush quite handily in 2004. As is well-known, voters elected a Democratic majority to Congress in November 2006 with a clear mandate to end the US military presence in Iraq, only to be betrayed by many of those same Democrats. Among the nearly two-thirds of the public who oppose the occupation, well over half oppose it on moral grounds—that is, as more than just a "mistake"—saying that the US presence in Iraq is "not morally justified" [3]. Recent polls show that opposition to war and militarism is not limited to the Iraq occupation alone: even those respondents registered as Republicans favor reducing the military budget by 20 percent, while Democrats favor reducing it by 48 percent (the current budget of the Defense Department alone is over $650 billion; total military spending is around $1.4 trillion a year) [4]. The public tends to express support for the UN and generally favors greater international cooperation and the diplomatic resolution of conflicts [5]. Instead of massive military spending, overwhelming majorities of people in this country believe that their government should be spending far more money to provide food and services like health care, housing, and education, and that corporations and the wealthy should be taxed at a much higher rate than they are currently [6].

 

In those instances when US leaders have mobilized significant support for major military interventions, they have done so through massive propaganda and disinformation campaigns. To prepare the public for war against Spain in 1898, the McKinley administration and press moguls like Joseph Pulitzer and William Hearst fabricated the charge that Spain had blown up the USS Maine off the shores of Cuba, popularizing the chant "Remember the Maine." To garner support for the subsequent military occupations of Cuba, the Philippines, and other former European colonies, the same class of people helped promote racist and paternalist views of dark-skinned peoples as incapable of self-governance. In 1917, Woodrow Wilson dragged an unenthusiastic population into World War I in part through a trick perhaps learned from McKinley, by claiming that Germany had sunk a peaceful civilian cruise ship, the Lusitania, which had in fact been heavily-loaded with ammunition. After World War II, every president from Truman to Bush I fostered anti-Communist hysteria and engaged in systematic fabrications, omissions, and covert operations to squash social revolutions and prop up repressive regimes throughout the Third World. The US war in Indochina provides

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