“It is not true that life is one damn thing after another – it’s one damn thing over and over.” -Edna St. Vincent Millay
So, there may not be WMD after all…why is anyone surprised? Whenever the U.S. has needed a pretext for military intervention, it has fabricated or provoked it. Zachary Taylor’s excursions in Mexican territory, the sinking of the Maine, the porous 38th Parallel, the safety of medical students in Grenada, April Glaspie’s engraved invitation to Saddam Hussein, Noreiga’s drug dealing, and famine in Somalia…to name but a few.
As George W. Bush declared on March 17, 2003, the night he gave Saddam Hussein a final ultimatum, “The United States and other nations did nothing to deserve or invite this threat, but we will do everything to defeat it.”
It’s an excuse we all learn in childhood: “He started it” or “She hit me first.” From this rudimentary alibi grows the myth of the sleeping giant. By portraying oneself as the target of an unprovoked or impending sneak attack, all bases are covered. Not only are you claiming innocence and the role of a victim, you might even be excused for responding angrily…maybe even with a little too much force.
If we are to trust our history books and newspaper headlines, we’d almost certainly come to this conclusion: The United States benevolently minds its own business but is incessantly awakened by surprise events and unprovoked incidents that test its celebrated patience…incidents like the aforementioned sinking of the Maine or the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor-after which Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander of the Japanese Fleet, is reported to have said: “I fear we have awoken a sleeping giant.” Interestingly, Yamamoto’s quote is yet another example of spin. There is no official record of the Japanese commander uttering those words…except for the 1970 feature film, “Tora! Tora! Tora!” Thank you, Hollywood. It may actually be Napoleon Bonaparte who deserves credit for this term. Legend has it he pointed to China on a map of the world and growled: “There is a sleeping giant. Let him sleep! If he wakes, he will shake the world.”
Regardless of who said it first, as with all myths, the “U.S. as Sleeping Giant” faÃ§ade crumbles rapidly under scrutiny. Here are two examples.
DAY OF INFAMY
The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 is the mother of all sleeping giant spins. The day after the attack, Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed Congress. The U.S. was “at peace” with Japan, he stated, yet had been “suddenly and deliberately attacked.” Yet, as historian Thomas A. Bailey wrote: “Franklin Roosevelt repeatedly deceived the American people during the period before Pearl Harbor… He was like the physician who must tell the patient lies for the patient’s own good.” The diplomatic record reveals some of what Dr. Roosevelt neglected to tell his easily deluded patients in that now-mythical “Date of Infamy” speech:
*Dec. 14, 1940: Joseph Grew, U.S. Ambassador to Japan, sends a letter to FDR, announcing that, “It seems to me increasingly clear that we are bound to have a showdown [with Japan] some day.”
*Dec. 30, 1940: Pearl Harbor is considered so likely a target of Japanese attack that Rear Admiral Claude C. Bloch, commander of the Fourteenth Naval District, authors a memorandum entitled, “Situation Concerning the Security of the Fleet and the Present Ability of the Local Defense Forces to Meet Surprise Attacks.”
*Jan. 27, 1941: Grew (in Tokyo) sends a dispatch to the State Department: “My Peruvian Colleague told a member of my staff that the Japanese military forces planned, in the event of trouble with the United States, to attempt a surprise mass attack on Pearl Harbor using all of their military facilities.”
*Feb. 5, 1941: Bloch’s December 30, 1940 memorandum leads to much discussion and eventually a letter from Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner to Secretary of War Henry Stimson in which Turner warns, “The security of the U.S. Pacific Fleet while in Pearl Harbor, and of the Pearl Harbor Naval Base itself, has been under renewed study by the Navy Department and forces afloat for the past several weeks… If war eventuates with Japan, it is believed easily possible that hostilities would be initiated by a surprise attack upon the Fleet or the Naval Base at Pearl Harbor… In my opinion, the inherent possibilities of a major disaster to the fleet or naval base warrant taking every step, as rapidly as can be done, that will increase the joint readiness of the Army and Navy to withstand a raid of the character mentioned above.”
*Feb. 18, 1941: Commander in Chief, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel says, “I feel that a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor is a possibility.”
*Sept. 11, 1941: Kimmel says, “A strong Pacific Fleet is unquestionably a deterrent to Japan-a weaker one may be an invitation.”
*Nov. 25, 1941: Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson writes in his diary that, “The President…brought up entirely the relations with the Japanese. He brought up the event that we’re likely to be attacked [as soon as] next Monday for the Japanese are notorious for making an attack without warning.”
*Nov. 27, 1941: U.S. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall issues a memorandum cautioning that “Japanese future action unpredictable but hostile action possible at any moment. If hostilities cannot…be avoided, the United States desires that Japan commit the first overt action.”
*Nov 29, 1941: Secretary of State Cordell Hull, responding to a speech by Japanese General Hideki Tojo one week before the attack, phones FDR at Warm Springs, GA to warn of “the imminent danger of a Japanese attack,” and urge him to return to Washington sooner than planned.
In light of this record, why were the Americans caught with their pants down on December 7? Never underestimate the collective power of arrogance and racism. “Many Americans, including Roosevelt, dismissed the Japanese as combat pilots because they were all presumed to be ‘near-sighted’,” writes Kenneth C. Davis. “There was also a sense that any attack on Pearl Harbor would be easily repulsed.” (It’s not hard to imagine a similar intelligence conclusion being reached pre-9/11.) When things didn’t turn out as imagined and the U.S. Navy was devastated at Pearl Harbor, the sleeping giant spin put it right.
SHOOTING AT WHALES
“Through the darkness, from the West and South, the intruders boldly sped. There were at least six of them, Russian-designed Swatow gunboats armed with 37-mm and 28-mm guns, and P-4’s. At 9.52 they opened fire on the destroyers with automatic weapons, and this time from as close as 2,000 yards. The night glowed eerily with the nightmarish glare of air dropped flares and boat’s searchlights. Two of the enemy boats went down.” No, this isn’t Tom Clancy; it’s Time Magazine in August 1964. “While on routine patrol in international waters, the U.S. destroyer Maddox underwent an unprovoked attack,” declared Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
The Washington Post headline on Aug. 5, 1964 read: AMERICAN PLANES HIT NORTH VIETNAM AFTER SECOND ATTACK ON OUR DESTROYERS; MOVE TAKEN TO HALT NEW AGGRESSION. “The official story was that North Vietnamese torpedo boats launched an ‘unprovoked attack’ against a U.S. destroyer on ‘routine patrol’ in the Tonkin Gulf on Aug. 2-and that North Vietnamese PT boats followed up with a ‘deliberate attack’ on a pair of U.S. ships two days later,” write Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon. President Lyndon Johnson, speaking on national television on the evening of August 4, 1964, announced air strikes against North Vietnam. In response, the Los Angeles Times exhorted readers to “face the fact that the Communists, by their attack on American vessels in international waters, have themselves escalated the hostilities.”
“Shortly after the events in the Gulf of Tonkin, Lyndon Johnson met with congressional leaders and lobbied them to grant him broad powers to respond to the supposed provocation,” says historian Donald R. Shaffer. “House and Senate leaders quickly acceded to his request.”
By a nearly unanimous vote by Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7, 1964, thus authorizing Johnson “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.” Over the next two years, 400,000 U.S. soldiers shipped out to South Vietnam.
Propaganda patterns often border on predictability. Like the U.S.S. Maine, the Maddox was not on a pleasure cruise. “U.S. ships had been supporting South Vietnamese commando raids into North Vietnam,” says Shaffer. The crew of the Maddox was gathering intelligence to support those raids. Despite the aggressive nature of its mission, there is still no reason to believe the Maddox was fired upon. According to Cohen and Solomon, “Cables from the U.S. task force commander in the Tonkin Gulf, Captain John J. Herrick, referred to ‘freak weather effects,’ ‘almost total darkness’ and an ‘overeager sonarman’ who ‘was hearing ship’s own propeller beat.'” Squadron commander James Stockdale, who would later serve as Ross Perot’s running mate in 1992, was a navy pilot flying over the Gulf of Tonkin that night. “I had the best seat in the house to watch that event,” Stockdale recalled, “and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets-there were no PT boats there…. There was nothing there but black water and American fire power.”
“There was no battle. There was not a single intruder, never mind six of them,” Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post states bluntly. “Never mind Russian designed Swatow gunboats armed with 37mm and 28mm guns. They never opened fire. They never sank. They never fired torpedoes. They never were.” One year after the dubious incident, Lyndon Johnson admitted: “For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there.”
Or maybe it was Saddam?
Mickey Z. is the author of The Murdering of My Years: Artists and Activists Making Ends Meet (www.murderingofmyyears.com ) and an editor at Wide Angle (www.wideangleny.com ). He can be reached at: [email protected] .