Going to War: The American use of War Pretext Incidents.
Going to War: Unraveling the Tangled Web of American Pretext Stratagems (1846-1989)
By Richard Sanders, coordinator, Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade.
Pretext n. [Latin praetextum, to weave before, pretend, disguise; prae-, before + texere, to weave], a false reason or motive put forth to hide the real one; excuse.
Stratagem [Gr. Strategema, device or act of a general; stratos, army + agein, to lead], a trick or scheme used to deceive an enemy in war.
For more than a year now the U.S. has seemed on the verge of attacking
Iraq. All that is stopping them is their inability to find a credible
pretext for war.
Throughout history, war planners have used many forms of deception
to trick their enemies. Because public support is so crucial to the
process of initiating and waging war, the home population is also subject
to deceitful stratagems. Creating false pretenses to justify war is often a
major step in gaining public support for such deadly ventures.
Like schoolyard bullies who shout 'He hit me first!', war planners
know that it is irrelevant whether their rival really did 'throw the first
punch.' As long as the attack can be made to appear unprovoked, the
aggressor can 'respond' with force. Bullies and war planners are experts
in the art of taunting, teasing and threatening. If enemies cannot be
goaded into 'firing the first shot,' it is easy enough to fabricate lies
about what happened. Such lies are used to rationalize schoolyard beatings
or genocidal wars.
Such expedient artifice has no doubt been used by every military
power in history. Roman emperors had their cassus belli to conceal real
reasons for waging war. Over the millenia, although weapons and battle
strategies have changed greatly, the deceitful strategem of using pretext
incidents to ignite war has remained remarkably consistent. In examining
this history, certain patterns repeatedly emerge, a distinct modus operandi
is detected, and the institutionalized, criminal ploys of war planners can
Perhaps the most commonly used war pretext device is an apparently
unprovoked enemy attack. Through history, such "attacks" have been
deliberately incited, completely fabricated, allowed to occur, or
engineered and then blamed on the desired enemy. The event is then
exploited to arouse widespread public sympathy for the victims, to demonise
the attackers and to build widespread support for military "retaliation"
among the general population, as well as among politicians and other
leaders of public opinion.
War pretext incidents, in themselves, are not sufficient to spark
wars. Rumours and allegations about the tragic events must also spread
throughout the target population. Constant repetition of the official
version of what happened, helps to spawn dramatic narratives that are
lodged into public consciousness. The stories then become accepted without
question and legends are fostered. The corporate media is central to the
success of such war propaganda. Politicians rally people around the flag,
lending their special oratory skills to the call for a military
"response." Demands for "retaliation" then ring out across the land, war
hysteria mounts and, finally, a war is born.
Every time the U.S. has gone to war, pretext incidents have been
used as triggers to justify military action. Later, the conventional views
of these controversial events have been challenged and exposed as
untrue. Historians, investigative journalists and others, have cited
eyewitness accounts, declassified documents and statements made by the
perpetrators themselves to demonstrate that provocative incidents were used
to stage manage the march to war.
There are dozens of other examples from U.S. history besides those
exposed in these pages. During the Cold War, dozens of covert and overt
wars were promoted using specific pretext episodes. However, the crusade
against communism was the generic backdrop for all rationales.
As the Cold War wound down, the "War on Drugs" was developed as a
new cover story. Lurking behind U.S. lies about wanting to squash illicit
drug production and trafficking, are the actual reasons for financing and
training so many right-wing, military governments. The "War on Drugs"
pretext has been used to boost counter-insurgency operations aimed at
destroying those opposed to U.S. corporate profiteering. The CIA has not
only used drugs as a pretext to arm regimes that themselves profit from
illegal drug sales, it has also financed many of its own covert wars using
the highly lucrative trade in heroine and cocaine.
The latest thematic pretext for war is the so-called "War Against
Terrorism." It is vitally important to expose this latest attempt to
fraudulently conceal the largely economic and geostrategic purposes of
war. By unraveling the intricate web of pretenses woven to deceive the
public, we can begin to reveal how corporations are the main benefactors of
war. By throwing light on repeated historical patterns of deception, we
can promote a healthy skepticism about government and corporate media yarns
that are now being spun to promote wars of the future.
If asked to support wars so that wealthy elites can safely plunder
the natural and human resources of foreign lands, people would likely 'just
say no.' Therefore, over the millennia, war planners have developed a
special martial art - the creation of war pretext incidents. These
elaborate webs of deceit are woven to create the appearance that wars are
fought for just, moral and humanitarian reasons.
The knowledge of how people have been repeatedly tricked into
going to war, is like a vaccine. It can be used to inoculate the public
with healthy doses of distrust for official, war pretext narratives and
other deceptive stratagems. Through such immunization programs we can help
to counter our society's susceptibility to "war fever" and, hopefully,
prevent the next bout of war from infecting us.
1846: The Mexican-American War
After Mexico's revolution in 1821, Americans demanded about $3 million in
compensation for their losses.1 Mexico abolished slavery in 1829 and then
prohibited further U.S. immigration into Texas, a Mexican state. In 1835,
Mexico tried to enforce its authority over Texas. Texans, rallying under
the slogan "Remember the Alamo!", drove Mexican troops out of Texas and
proclaimed independence. For nine years, many Texans lobbied for U.S.
annexation. This was delayed by northerners that opposed adding more slave
territories to the U.S. and feared a war with Mexico.2
In 1844, Democratic presidential candidate, James Polk, declared
his support for annexing Texas. The next year, under President John Tyler,
Texas was annexed and Mexico broke off diplomatic relations with the
U.S. Later that year, when Polk became president, winning with the
thinnest margin ever,3 he sent John Slidell to Mexico offering $25 million
for New Mexico, California and an agreement accepting the Rio Grande
boundary. Mexican government officials flatly refused to even meet the
John Stockwell, a Texan who led the CIA's covert 1970s war in Angola,
summed up the start of Mexican- American war by saying "they offered two
dollars-a-head to every soldier who would enlist. They didn't get enough
takers, so they offered a hundred acres to anyone who would be a veteran of
that war. They still didn't get enough takers, so [General] Zachary Taylor
was sent down to parade up and down the border - the disputed border -
until the Mexicans fired on him.... And the nation rose up, and we fought
President Polk hoped that sending General Taylor's 3,500 soldiers
into Mexico territory, would provoke an attack against U.S. troops.6 "On
May 8, 1846, Polk met with his Cabinet at the White House and told them
that if the Mexican army attacked the U.S. forces, he was going to send a
message to Congress asking for a declaration of war. It was decided that
war should be declared in three days even if there was no attack."7
When news of a skirmish arrived, Polk sent a message to Congress
on May 11: "Mexico has passed the boundary of the U.S. and shed American
blood on American soil."8 Two days later Congress declared war on Mexico.9
Newspapers helped the push for war with headlines like: "'Mexicans Killing
our Boys in Texas.'10
With public support secured, U.S. forces occupied New Mexico and
California. U.S. troops fought battles across northern Mexico and stormed
their capital. A new more U.S.-friendly government quickly emerged
there. In 1847, with Mexico City and much of northern half of the country
occupied by the U.S. military, the new Mexican leaders had little choice
but to concede defeat. In early 1847, as part of the Guadalupe Hidalgo
Treaty, Mexico agreed to "sell" about half of their territory to the U.S.
for $15 million. The treaty also forced Mexico to recognize the U.S.
annexation of Texas by making the Rio Grande their new border with the U.S.11
As a direct result of his exploits, General Taylor, by then a
wealthy slave-owner, became an American war hero. He used this status to
ride his victory straight into the White House by succeeding Polk as
president in 1849.
The U.S. secured over a million square miles from Mexico, including Texas,
Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, California and parts of Colorado, Kansas and
The war was a boon to U.S. nationalism, it boosted popular support
for a very weak president and added vast new territories to the U.S. where
slavery was allowed.
1898: The Spanish-American War
Cubans fought several wars to free themselves from Spanish colonial rule,
including 1868-1878, 1879-1880 and 1895-1898.12 In 1898, Cubans were on
the brink of finally winning their independence. The U.S. government
agreed to respect Cuba's sovereignty and promised they would not step in.
"On January 24,  on the pretext of protecting the life and
safety of Mr. Lee, U.S. consul in Havana, and other U.S. citizens in the
face of street disturbances provoked by Spanish extremists, the Maine
battleship entered the bay of Havana."13
On February 15, 1898, a huge explosion sank the U.S.S Maine killing 266 of
In 1975, U.S. Admiral Hyman Rickover's investigation concluded
that there was no evidence of any external explosion. The explosion was
internal, probably caused by a coal dust explosion. The ship's weapons and
explosives were dangerously stored right next to its coal bunker.15
The Maine's captain cautioned against assumptions of an enemy attack. The
press denounced him for "refusing to see the obvious." The Atlantic
Monthly said anyone thinking this was not a premeditated, Spanish act of
war was "completely at defiance of the laws of probability."16 Newspapers
ran wild headlines: "Spanish Cannibalism," "Inhuman Torture," "Amazon
Warriors Fight for Rebels."17 Guillermo Jimpnez Soler notes: "U.S.
intervention in the war was preceded by intensive press campaigns which
incited jingoism, pandering to the most shameless tales and sensationalism
and exacerbated cheap sentimentality. Joseph Pulitzer of The World and
William Randolph Hearst from The Journal, the two largest U.S. papers...
carried their rivalry to a paroxysm of inflaming public opinion with
scandalous, provocative and imaginary stories designed to win acceptance of
U.S. participation in the first of its holy wars beyond its maritime
U.S. papers sent hundreds of reporters and photographers to cover
the apparent Spanish attacks. Upon arrival, many were
disappointed. Frederick Remington wrote to Hearst saying: "There is no war
.... Request to be recalled." Hearst's cable replied: "Please remain. You
furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war." For weeks, Hearst's Journal
dedicated eight pages a day to the explosion.19
Through ceaseless repetition, a rallying cry for retaliation grew
into a roar. "In the papers, on the streets and in.Congress. The slogan
was 'Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain.'"20 With the U.S. public and
government safely onboard, the U.S. set sail for war and launched an era of
'gunboat diplomacy.' Anti-war sentiments were drowned out by the cries for
war. On April 25, 1898, the U.S. Congress declared war on Spain.
Within four months "the U.S. replaced Spain as the colonial power in the
Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico, and devised a special status for
Cuba. Never again would the U.S. achieve so much.as in that 'splendid
little war,' as. described at the time by John Hay, future secretary of
Historian Howard Zinn says that 1898 heralded "the most dramatic
entrance onto the world scene of American military and economic
power.. The war ushered in what Henry Luce later referred to as the
American Century, which really meant a century of American domination."22
1915: World War I
In 1915, Europe was embroiled in war, but U.S. public sentiment opposed
involvement. President Woodrow Wilson said they would "remain neutral in
fact as well as in name."23
On May 7, 1915, a German submarine (U-boat) sank the Lusitania, a British
passenger ship killing 1,198, including 128 Americans.24
The public was not told that passengers were, in effect, a 'human
shield' protecting six million rounds of U.S. ammunition bound for
Britain.25 To Germany, the ship was a threat. To Britain, it was bait for
luring an attack. Why?
A week before the attack, British Admiralty leader, Winston
Churchill wrote to the Board of Trade's president saying it is "most
important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hopes
especially of embroiling the U.S. with Germany."26 Churchill, had
previously asked Commander Joseph Kenworthy, of Naval Intelligence
(Political Section), to report on the "political results of an ocean liner
being sunk with American passengers on board."27
For his book, Freedom of the Seas (1927), Commander Kenworthy
wrote: "The Lusitania was deliberately sent at considerably reduced speed
into an area where a U-boat was known to be waiting and with her escorts
Patrick Beesly's history of WWI British naval intelligence, notes:
"no effective steps were taken to protect the Lusitania." British
complicity is furthered by their foreknowledge that:
U-boat commanders knew of the Lusitania's route,
a U-boat that had sunk two ships [the Candidate and the Centurion]
in recent days was in the path of the Lusitania,
although destroyers were available, none escorted the Lusitania or
hunted for U-boats,
the Lusitania was not specifically warned of these threats.29
U.S. newspapers aroused outrage against Germany for ruthlessly killing
defenceless Americans. The U.S. was being drawn into the war. In June
1916, Congress increased the size of the army. In September, Congress
allocated $7 billion for national defense, "the largest sum appropriated to
In January 1917, the British said they had intercepted a German
message to Mexico seeking an alliance with Germany and offering to help
Mexico recover land ceded to the U.S. On April 2, Wilson told Congress:
"The world must be safe for democracy." Four days later the U.S. declared
war on Germany.31
Influential British military, political and business interests wanted U.S.
help in their war with Germany. Beesly concludes that: "Unless and until
fresh information comes to light, I am reluctantly driven to the conclusion
that there was a conspiracy deliberately to put the Lusitania at risk in
the hope that even an abortive attack on her would bring the U.S. into the
war. Such a conspiracy could not have been put into effect without Winston
Churchill's express permission and approval."32
In Churchill's WWI memoirs, The World Crisis, he states: "There
are many kinds of maneuvres in war, some only of which take place on the
battlefield.... The maneuvre which brings an ally into the field is as
serviceable as that which wins a great battle."33
In WWI, rival imperialist powers struggled for bigger portions of
the colonial pie. "They were fighting over boundaries, colonies, spheres
of influence; they were competing for Alsace-Lorraine, the Balkans, Africa
and the Middle East."34 U.S. war planners wanted a piece of the action.
"War is the health of the state," said Randolph Bourne during
WWI. Zinn explains: "Governments flourished, patriotism bloomed, class
struggle was stilled."35
1941: World War II
U.S. fascists opposed President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) from the
start. In 1933, "America's richest businessmen were in a panic. Roosevelt
intended to conduct a massive redistribution of wealth.[and it] had to be
stopped at all costs. The answer was a military coup.secretly financed and
organized by leading officers of the Morgan and du Pont empires." A top
Wall Street conspirator, Gerald MacGuire, said: "We need a fascist
government in this country.to save the nation from the communists who want
to tear it down and wreck all that we have built."36
The Committee on Un-American Activities said: "Sworn testimony
showed that the plotters represented notable families - Rockefeller,
Mellon, Pew, Pitcairn, Hutton and great enterprises - Morgan, Dupont,
Remington, Anaconda, Bethlehem, Goodyear, GMC, Swift, Sun."37
FDR also faced "isolationist" sentiments from such millionaires,
who shared Hitler's hatred of communism and had financed Hitler's rise to
power, as George Herbert Walker and Prescott Bush, predecessors of the
current president.38 William R.Hearst, newspaper magnate and mid-wife of
the war with Spain, actually employed Hitler, Mussolini and Goering as
writers. He met Hitler in 1934 and used Readers' Digest and his 33
newspapers to support fascism and to oppose America's entry into the war.39
On December 7, 1941, Japanese bombers attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet in
Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, killing about 2,460.40 FDR, and his closest
advisors, not only knew of the attack in advance and did not prevent it,
they actually took deliberate actions to provoke it. Lt. Arthur McCollum,
head of the Far East desk for U.S. Navy intelligence, wrote a detailed
eight-step plan on October 7, 1940 that was designed to provoke an
attack.41 FDR immediately set this covert plan in motion. Soon after
implementing the final step, Japan attacked Pearl Harbour. (See "Smoking
Gun," page 11.)
After meeting FDR on October 16, 1941, Secretary of War Henry
Stimson wrote: "We face the delicate question of the diplomatic fencing to
be done so as to be sure Japan is put into the wrong and makes the first
bad move - overt move."42
In Day of Deceit: The Truth about FDR and Pearl Harbor, Robert
Stinnett notes: "On November 15, 1941,... [Japanese] Admiral Yamamoto's
forces moved to the attacking points, both for the Philippines and Pearl
Harbor, and Wake and Guam.... General George Marshall, ...the Army's Chief
of Staff, called in Washington bureau chiefs of the major newspapers...and
magazines. This included the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune,
Newsweek and Time magazines, pledged these bureau chiefs to secrecy, and
told them that we had broken the Japanese codes, and expected war to start
in the first week of December, 1941. The General obviously had... a
decoded message from the Japanese Chief of Naval Operations, who on
November 5 said that war would start with England, The Netherlands and
America the first week of December. This was a message intercepted in
Hawaii, not given to Admiral Kimmel [commander of the U.S. Fleet based at
Pearl Harbour] or General Short [head of the U.S. Army defense on Hawaii],
but given to General Marshall in Washington."43
On November 25, after meeting with FDR, Stimson wrote: "The
question was: how we should maneuver them [the Japanese] into the position
of firing the first shot."44
The U.S. had cracked Japanese diplomatic and military codes.45 A
Top Secret Army Board report (October 1944), shows that the U.S. military
knew "the probable exact hour and date of the attack."46 On November 29,
1941, the Secretary of State revealed to a reporter that the attack's time
and place was known. This foreknowledge was reported in the New York Times
(Dec. 8, 1941).47
On the day after Pearl Harbour was bombed, FDR signed the U.S. declaration
of war on Japan. With media support, "Remember Pearl Harbour!" became an
American rallying cry. On December 11, Germany and Italy declared war on
As the war wound down, decoded messages revealed to the U.S.
military that Japan would soon surrender. They knew the use of atomic
bombs to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki was militarily
unnecessary. Although nuclear weapons are commonly believed to have ended
WWII, they were actually the opening salvo of another war, the Cold War
against the USSR.
Because powerful U.S. interests were so opposed to U.S. involvement in
WWII, FDR needed a particularly emotive, war pretext incident. American
warplanners used WWII to maneuver the U.S. into a position of superiority
over former imperial rivals in Europe. In Parenti's words, the U.S. "became
the prime purveyor and guardian of global capitalism."48 As the only nation
wielding nuclear weapons, the U.S. also became the world's sole superpower.
1950: The Korean War
There is "extensive evidence of U.S. crimes against peace and crimes
against humanity" committed after they occupied south Korea in September
1945. The U.S. was guilty of creating "a police state.using many former
collaborators with Japanese rule, provok[ing] tension. between southern and
northern Korea, opposing and disrupting any plans for peaceful
reunification. The U.S. trained, directed and supported ROK [South Korea]
in systematic murder, imprisonment, torture, surveillance, harassment and
violations of human rights of hundreds of thousands., especially.
nationalists, leftists, peasants seeking land reform, union organizers
and/or those sympathetic to the north."49
University of Hawaii professor, Oliver Lee, notes a "long pattern
of South Korean incursions" into the north. In 1949, there were more than
400 border engagements. A U.S. Army document states: "Some of the
bloodiest engagements were caused by South Korean units securing and
preparing defensive positions that were either astride or north of the 38th
parallel [the border between the two Koreas]. This provoked violent North
On June 25, 1950, the North Korean military were said to have moved three
miles into South Korea territory.
Dr. Channing Liem, the former South Korean ambassador to the UN
(1960-1961) wrote that for the U.S., "the question, 'who fired the first
shot?' carried special significance.. Assistant Secretary of State for UN
Affairs. [revealed] before the Senate Appropriations Committee, 1950, the
U.S. devised a plan prior to the start of the war to gain approval from the
UN to send its troops to Korea under the UN flag in the event that South
Korea was attacked. It was imperative, therefore, that the 'first shot' be
fired by the North, or at least that such an argument could be made."51
South Korean President Syngman Rhee triggered the war "with behind
the scene support of John Foster Dulles," the former-U.S. Secretary of
State who met Rhee (June 18, 1950) just days before the pretext
incident. Dulles told Rhee that "if he was ready to attack the communist
North, the U.S. would lend help, through the UN.. He advised Rhee.to
persuade the world that the ROK [South Korea] was attacked first, and to
plan his actions accordingly."52
In 1955, Albert Einstein told Liem that "the U.S. was manipulating
the UN.. [which] was being exploited by the great powers at the expense of
the small nations.. [Einstein] went on to say [that] great powers do not
act on the basis of facts only but manufacture the facts to serve their
purposes and force their will on smaller nations."53
I.F.Stone exposed how a U.S. diplomat deceived the UN Secretary
General into believing there had been an unprovoked attack by North Korean .54
North Korea claimed that the attack began two days earlier when
Southern divisions launched a six-hour artillery attack and then pushed 1-2
kilometers north across the border. The North then responded to "halt the
enemy's advance and go over to a decisive counterattack."55
Secretary of State, Dean Acheson was "quick to seize the opportunity to
blame the war on North Korea regardless of the evidence." North Korea was
accused of "brutal, unprovoked aggression."56
The public was told that this 'invasion' was the first step in
Soviet plans for world domination. Anyone opposing the war was labeled a
communist. The paranoia of McCarthyism was booming.
On June 27, 1950, Truman orders U.S. troops to support South
Korea, Congress agrees and the UN Security Council approves the plan.57
About 3 million civilians were killed in the war, two-thirds in North
A month before the pretext, Rhee suffered a terrible electoral defeat. To
maintain his faltering grip on power, he desperately required more U.S.
backing. By going to war with North Korea, Rhee not only garnered
much-needed U.S. military and diplomatic assistance, he diverted public
attention away from growing scandals that plagued his repressive regime.
The war was also used to triple the Pentagon budget, boost NATO's
military build-up and create a new military role for the UN that could be
manipulated by the U.S.
1964: The Vietnam War
Long before WWII, Vietnamese fought for independence from French Indochina.
Resistance continued when Japanese troops occupied the colony during the
war. Much of the region reverted to French control after the war. As
early as 1950, the U.S. aided French efforts to defeat the Ho Chi Minh's
revolutionary forces. When France lost a decisive battle in 1954, the
Geneva Accord recognized the independence of Vietnam, Laos and
Cambodia. Vietnam was "temporarily" divided. Ngo Dinh Diem's repressive
regime in South Vietnam was backed by thousands of U.S. military
"advisors." A military coup overthrew Diem in November 1963.59
That same month, President Kennedy - who had resisted escalating
the war - was assassinated. President Johnson took power and began
intensified U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
On July 30, 1964, enemy torpedo boats supposedly attacked a U.S. destroyer,
the USS Maddox, in North Vietnam's Gulf of Tonkin. This lie of an
"unprovoked attack" against a "routine patrol" threw the U.S. headlong into
The Maddox was actually involved in "aggressive intelligence
gathering in coordination with actual attacks by South Vietnam and the
Laotian Air Force against targets in North Vietnam."60 They wanted to
provoke a response "but the North Vietnamese wouldn't bite. So, Johnson
invented the attack."61
The U.S. task force commander for the Gulf of Tonkin "cabled
Washington that the report was the result of an 'over-eager' sonarman who
picked up the sounds of his own ship's screws and panicked."62
On August 5, 1964, although he knew the attack had not occurred, Johnson
couldn't resist this opportunity for a full-scale war. Johnson went on
national TV to lie about the Tonkin incident and to announce a bombing
campaign to "retaliate." The media repeated the lie ad nauseam. The
fabricated assault was "used as justification for goading Congress into
granting the president the authorization to initiate a protracted and
highly lucrative war with North Vietnam."63 Johnson asked Congress for
powers "to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against
the forces of the U.S. and to prevent further aggression."64 Johnson
escalated the Vietnam war by signing the "Gulf of Tonkin resolution" on
August 10, 1964.
By 1975, about four million people had been killed by the U.S. war
in Southeast Asia.
As during the Spanish-American war, the American business elite sought to
acquire colonies from a failing imperial power, in this case, France. U.S.
corporations wanted access to region's markets and resources, like tin,
tungsten and rubber.65 The war also gave a huge boost to the
military-industrial complex in the U.S.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower propounded the 'Domino Theory' in
1954.66 If South Vietnam 'fell,' then other countries would too, 'like a
set of dominos.' The Vietnam War was a threat to all revolutionaries and
1979: Covert War in Afghanistan
In 1973, the Afghan monarchy was overthrown. The new government, led by
Mohammad Daoud - one of the king's cousins - was supported by the People's
Democratic Party (PDP) and other leftist parties and organizations.
The U.S. and Iran pressured Daoud to sever ties the U.S.SR. The
U.S. offered $2 billion in aid and urged Afghanistan to join the Regional
Cooperation for Development, which included Iran, Pakistan and Turkey,
America's main client states in the region.
The Daoud regime began moving steadily into the U.S. orbit. They
killed a PDP leader, arresting many others and purged hundreds of their
sympathizers from government positions. In April 1978, the PDP, aided by
military supporters, revolted against Daoud and took power. The stated goal
of this "April revolution" was to drag Afghanistan out of feudal existence.
Life expectancy was about 40, infant mortality was about 25%, sanitation
was primitive, there was widespread malnutrition and illiteracy was more
In William Blum's classic summary of the CIA's covert wars,
Killing Hope, he outlines some of the revolutionary government's social and
"The new government under President Taraki declared a commitment
to Islam within a secular state, and to non-alignment in foreign affairs.
It said the coup was not foreign inspired and that they were not Communists
but rather nationalists and revolutionaries. They pushed radical reforms,
they talked about class struggle, they used anti-imperialist rhetoric, they
supported Cuba, they signed a friendship treaty and other cooperative
agreements with the Soviets and they increased the number of Soviet
civilian and military advisers in Afghanistan.... In May 1979, British
political scientist Fred Halliday said 'probably more has changed in the
countryside over the last year than in the two centuries since the state
The most significant of these changes included the cancellation of
peasant's debts to landlords, the building of hundreds of schools and
medical clinics, the outlawing of child marriage and the marital exchange
of women for money or commodities, the legalization of trade unions and
This new government was not, of course, acceptable to the U.S.,
which allied itself with large landowners, tribal chiefs, Afghan
businessmen and royalty. Within two months, the new government was under
attack by conservative Islamist guerrillas (mujahideen).
In his memoirs, former CIA director Robert Gates (1991-1993) said that the
U.S. provoked the December 1979 Soviet intervention in Afghanistan by
giving military assistance to the mujahideen. Gates recalls a meeting, nine
months earlier, on March 30, 1979, when Under Secretary of Defense Walter
Slocombe said "there was value in keeping the Afghan insurgency going,
'sucking the Soviets into a Vietnamese quagmire.'"68
In 1998, this U.S. effort to entrap the Soviets in the Afghan
civil war, was confirmed by Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's National Security
Advisor (1977-1981). Brzezinski bragged that by covertly arming and
financing the mujahideen, the U.S. deliberately drew the Soviets into the
war: "According to the official version of history, the CIA assistance to
the Mujahideen began during 1980, i.e. after the Soviet army had invaded
Afghanistan on December 24, 1979. But the reality, kept secret until now,
is very different: it was July 3, 1979 when President Carter signed the
first directive on the clandestine assistance to opponents of the
pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. On that day, I wrote a note to the President in
which I explained that in my opinion this aid would bring about a military
intervention by the Soviets..... We did not push the Russians to intervene,
but we knowingly increased the probability that they would."69
In March 1979, Afghan President Taraki visited Moscow to request
Soviet help to fight the mujahideen. The Soviets did promise some military
aid, but they would not commit ground troops. As Soviet Premier Alexei
Kosygin told Taraki: "The entry of our troops into Afghanistan would
outrage the international community, triggering a string of extremely
negative consequences. Our common enemies are just waiting for the moment
when Soviet troops appear in Afghanistan. This will give them the excuse
they need to send armed bands into the country."70
Blum notes that "prior to the Soviet invasion, the CIA had been
beaming radio propaganda into Afghanistan and cultivating alliances with
exiled Afghan guerrilla leaders by donating medicine and communications
equipment. U.S. foreign service officers had been meeting with Mujahideen
leaders to determine their needs at least as early as April 1979. And, in
July, President Carter had signed a 'finding' to aid the rebels covertly,
which led to the U.S. providing them with cash, weapons, equipment and
supplies, and engaging in propaganda and other psychological operations in
Afghanistan on their behalf."71
The U.S. government and corporate media, characterized the mujahideen as
"freedom fighters" and the Soviets simply as invaders of a defenseless
country. Blum describes the propaganda offensive: "The Carter
administration jumped on the issue of the Soviet 'invasion' and launched a
campaign of righteous indignation, imposing what Carter called 'penalties'
- from halting the delivery of grain to the Soviet Union to keeping the
U.S. team out of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. On this seemingly
clear-cut, anti-communist issue, the U.S. public and media easily fell in
line with the president. The Wall Street Journal (Jan. 7, 1980) called for
a 'military' reaction, the establishment of U.S. bases in the Middle East,
'reinstatement of draft registration,' development of a new missile and
giving the CIA more leeway."72
After the Soviets were drawn into the Afghan trap, the U.S.
rapidly escalated their support for the mujahideen. It is widely considered
to have been "the largest covert operation in the history of the CIA."73
After the Soviets sent in their troops, the CIA poured billions of dollars
into arming a dozen mujahideen factions throughout the 1980s.
The CIA's Afghan war was very similar to its covert war against
the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Both sets of contras (or
counter-revolutionaries) used terror tactics to attack literacy programs,
schools, health clinics, co-ops and other social and economic programs of
the government. Both contras were also heavily involved in the drug
trade. The anti-Sandinista contras financed much of their terror by moving
cocaine into the U.S., while the Afghan contras grew opium for heroine
production and trade. "There's no doubt about it. The rebels keep their
sales going through the sale of opium." David Melocik, Drug Enforcement
Agency Congressional Affairs liaison. Dr. David Musto of the White House
Strategy Council on Drug Abuse warned: "We were going into Afghanistan to
support the opium growers in their rebellion against the Soviets."74
The main goal of the CIA's covert war against Afghanistan was to "'bleed'
the Soviet Union, just as the U.S. had been bled in Vietnam."75 As
Brzezinski said: "For almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war
unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the
demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire."76
When asked if he regretted arming the mujahideen, Brzezinski said:
"Regret what? This secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the
effect of luring the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to
regret it? The day the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to
President Carter, in substance: 'We now have the opportunity to give the
U.S.SR its war of Vietnam.' In fact, Moscow had to conduct an unbearable
war for almost ten years, a conflict which led to the demoralization and
finally the break up of the Soviet empire."
Interviewer: "Do you regret supporting Islamic fundamentalism, having given
weapons and advice to... terrorists?"
Brzezinski: "What is most important from the point of view of the history
of the world? The Taliban or the fall of the Soviet empire? A few excited
Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and end of the cold war?"77
Besides being an effort to destroy the Soviet Union, the Afghan
war was also waged in order to send a threatening message to other Third
World countries. In August 1979, three months before the Soviet
intervention, a classified State Department Report stated: "the United
States's larger interests... would be served by the demise of the
Taraki-Amin regime, despite whatever setbacks this might mean for future
social and economic reforms in Afghanistan.... the overthrow of the D.R.A.
[Democratic Republic of Afghanistan] would show the rest of the world,
particularly the Third World, that the Soviets' view of the socialist
course of history as being inevitable is not accurate."78
1989: Invasion of Panama
The Panama Canal has dominated Panama's history. U.S. military invasions
and interventions occurred in 1895, 1901-1903, 1908, 1912, 1918-1920, 1925,
1950, 1958, 1964 and 1989.96 In November 1903, U.S. troops ensured Panama's
secession from Colombia. Within days, a treaty gave the U.S. permanent and
exclusive control of the canal.97
Panama's former military leader, Manuel Noriega, was recruited by
U.S. military intelligence in 1959, attended the U.S. Army School of the
Americas in 1967 and led Panama's military intelligence the next year. By
1975, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency knew of his drug dealing. Noriega
met, then-CIA Director, George Bush in 1976.98
In 1977, Presidents Jimmy Carter and Omar Torrijos, signed a
treaty to return the canal to Panamanian control in 1999. However, other
Americans worked to undermine the treaty using "diplomatic.and political
pressure, through to economic aggression and military invasion."99
In the early-1980s, Noriega's drug smuggling helped fund the
contras in Nicaragua. He took control of Panama's National Guard in 1983
and helped rig elections in 1984. Noriega eventually fell out of U.S.
favour, and so they indicted him for drug crimes in 1988.100
On April 14, 1988, Reagan invoked "war powers" against Panama. In
May, the Assistant Defense Secretary told the Senate: "I don't think anyone
has totally discarded the use of force."101
On December 16, 1989, the U.S. corporate media reported on an "unprovoked
attack on a U.S. soldier who did not return fire."102 The soldier was
killed when driving "through a military roadblock near a sensitive military
area."103 Panama's government said "U.S. officers. fired at a military
headquarters, wounding a soldier and. a 1-year-old girl. A wounded
Panamanian soldier. confirmed this account to U.S. reporters."104 The U.S.
soldiers said they would "frequently hassle Panama's forces at
roadblocks....claimed that they were lost, yelled obscenities at the
Panamanian soldiers, and quickly sped off."105 The wife of a U.S.
officer was reportedly arrested and beaten.
George Bush called the Panamanian military's alleged attack on U.S.
soldiers an "enormous outrage"106 and said he "would not stand by while
American womanhood is threatened."107 Noam Chomsky has questioned why Bush
"stood by" when a U.S. nun was kidnapped and sexually abused by police in
the U.S.-backed military dictatorship of Guatemalan only weeks prior to the
pretext incident in Panama. Chomsky also pointed out that two U.S. nuns
were killed by U.S.-backed contras in Nicaragua on January 1, 1990, and
that a U.S. nun was wounded by gunmen in U.S.-backed El Salvador around the
As the pretext evolved, the media demonized Noriega and focused on
the need to arrest him for drug smuggling. The media turned the "'Noriega'
issue into an accepted justification for the invasion.. Colonel Eduardo
Herrera, ex-Director of [Panama's] 'Public Forces,'.said: "If the real
interest of the U.S. was to capture Noriega, they could have done so on
numerous occasions. [They] had all his movements completely controlled."109
On December 20, 1989, "Operation Just Cause" began. More than
4,000 were killed. U.S. crimes included indiscriminate attacks,
extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detentions, destruction of property
(like leveling the Chorrillo neighbourhood), use of prohibited weapons,
erasing evidence and the use of mass burials.110
A U.S.-friendly president, Guillermo Endara, was soon sworn in on
a U.S. military base in Panama.
A right-wing, U.S. think tank stated in 1988 that: "once [Panama] is
controlled by a democratic regime.. discussions should begin with respect
to a realistic defense of the Canal after.2000. These discussions should
include the maintenance, by the U.S., of a limited number of military
installations in Panama.to maintain adequate projection of force in the
The invasion of Panama also:
* rectified "Bush's 'wimpy' foreign relations image,"
* gave a "spectacular show of U.S. military might in the final months
before the Nicaraguan elections, hinting. that they might want to vote for
the 'right' candidate,"
* signalled "that the U.S..[would] intervene militarily where the control
of illegal drugs was ostensibly at stake,"
* "demonstrated the new U.S. willingness to assume active, interventionist
leadership of the 'new world order' in the post-Cold War period,"112
* led to the abrogation of the Carter-Torrijos Treaty and the complete
dismantling of Panama's military, and
* allowed the U.S. to test new weapons systems, such as the brand new B-2
bomber (worth U.S.$2.2 billion).
1. "History of Mexico, Empire and Early Republic, 1821-55," Area
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2. Shayne M. Cokerdem, "Unit Plan: Manifest Destiny and the Road to
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17. J. Buschini, "Spanish-American War," Small Planet Communications,
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23. Woodrow Wilson, Message to Congress, Aug. 19, 1914, Senate Doc.566,
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25. Colin Simpson, Lusitania, 1972, p.151.
26. Winston Churchill, cited by Ralph Raico, "Rethinking Churchill,"
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28. Simpson, p. 129.
29. Patrick Beesly, Room 40: British Naval Intelligence, 1914-18, 1982,
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30. Peter Young, "World War I," World Book Encyclopedia, 1967, pp.374-375.
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32. Patrick Beesly, cited by Raico
33. The World Crisis, cited by Simpson.
34. Howard Zinn, "War Is the Health of the State," A People's History
of the United States, Sept. 2001.
36. Steve Kangas, "Business Plot to Overthrow Roosevelt," Liberalism
37. Dale Wharton, Eclectica Book Review of Jules Archer's The Plot to
Seize the White House (1973).
38. Webster Tarpley and Anton Chaitkin, "The Hitler Project," George
Bush: The Unauthorized Biography, 1992.
39. David Nasaw, "Remembering 'The Chief,'" interview, News-hour, Sept.
40. Joseph Czarnecki, Richard Worth, Matthias C. Noch and Tony
DiGiulian, "Attack on Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941," The Battles Of The
41. Steve Fry, "Author: FDR knew attack was coming," The
Capital-Journal, June 12, 2001.
42. Henry Stimson, cited by Robert Stinnett, Day of Deceit: The Truth
about FDR and Pearl Harbour, 2000.
43. Robert Stinnett, "Pearl Harbour: Official Lies in an American War
Tragedy?" Speech, Independent Institute, May 24, 2000.
44. Henry Stimson, cited by Robert Stinnett, Day of Deceit: The Truth
about FDR and Pearl Harbour, 2000.
45. "The MAGIC Documents: Summaries and Transcripts of the Top-Secret
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46. Paul Proteus, "Part 1: Pearl Harbour," America's Phoney Wars.
48. Michael Parenti, Against Empire, 1995, p.36.
49. "Final Judgement of the Korea International War Crimes Tribunal,"
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50. Oliver Lee, "South Korea Likely Provoked War with North,"
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51. Channing Liem, The Korean War - An Unanswered Question, 1993.
53. Albert Einstein cited by Channing Liem.
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59. Sandra M.Wittman, "Chronology of U.S.-Vietnamese Relations,"
Vietnam: Yesterday and Today.
61. John DiNardo, "The CIA and the Gulf War," aired by Pacifica Radio.
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65. Dwight D. Eisenhower, "Domino Theory Principle, 1954," Public
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67. William Blum, "Afghanistan 1979-1992: America's Jihad," Killing
Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II (1995, revised
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Five Presidents & How They Won the Cold War (1997)
69. Le Nouvel Observatour, January 15, 1998. Translated by Ian Stobie
73. Fred Halliday, New Republic, March 25, 1996.
74. "Dealing in Death," Wakeup
75. Mark Zapezauer, CIA's Greatest Hits
76. Le Nouvel Observatour, ibid. Trans. Ian Stobie.
77. Le Nouvel Observatour.
79. Ellen Ray and Bill Schaap, "U.S. Crushes Caribbean Jewel." Covert
Action Information Bulletin (CAIB), winter 1984, p.8
80. Jeff Hackett, "Burying 'Gairyism.'" Bibliographies.
81. Preface to Maurice Bishop speech "In Nobody's Backyard," April 13,
1979, The Militant, Mar.15 1999.
82. Ray and Schaap, pp.3-5
83. Ray and Schaap, p.6
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Spring-Summer 1983, p.29.
85. Ray and Schaap, pp.10-11
86. Ray and Schaap, p.5
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October 1983," History of Amphibious Warfare (Naval Science 293), Naval
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94. Alternativeinsight, Sept.1, 2001.
95. Anthony Arnove and Alan Maass, "Washington's war crimes," Socialist
Worker, Nov.16, 2001.
96. Zoltan Grossman, "One Hundred Years of Intervention," 2001.
97. Commission for Defence of Human Rights in Latin America (CODEHUCA),
This is the Just Cause, 1990, p.115.
98. Richard Sanders, "Manuel Noriega," Press for Conversion!, Dec. 2000.
99. CODEHUCA, pp.117, 108
101. CODEHUCA, p.108
102. Richard K. Moore, "The Police State Conspiracy an Indictment," New
Dawn, Jan.-Dec. 1998.
103. Noam Chomsky, "Operation Just Cause: the Pretexts," Deterring
105. Jim Huck, The Anointed One: The Rise of George W. Bush.
106. Alex Safian, Myth of Excessive Force, Nov.9, 2000.
109. CODEHUCA, p.106.
110. CODEHUCA, passim.
111. "Panama: Test for U.S.-Latin American Foreign Relations,"
Interhemispheric Resource Center, May 1995.
The above article "Unravelling the Tangled Web of Pretext Stratagems" was
published in Press for Conversion! January 2003 (Issue #50), the 50-page
quarterly publication of the Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade (COAT), a
Canadian peace network of individuals and organizations.
The theme of issue #50 is: "Going to War: The American use of War Pretext
Incidents." As you'll see from the Table of Contents (appended below),
this issue of COAT's magazine highlights about 15 case studies of pretext
incidents that have been used to trigger U.S. wars, invasions and bombing
sprees since 1846. (It also contains declassified "Top Secret" US military
documents related to "Project Northwoods" which in 1962 detailed plans for
manufacturing pretext incidents that could be used to launch a US war
The magazine contains several articles on war pretext incidents that are
not covered in the above article. It also contains dozens of additional
articles and photos related to the case studies described in the article
Please consider subscribing or perhaps just ordering one or more copies of
this particular issue. Use the form below to subscribe and/or order copies
of this issue.
Press for Conversion! Issue #50 January 2003
Published quarterly by the Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade
Theme of this issue:
"Going to War: The American use of War Pretext Incidents"
Table of Contents:
Unravelling the Tangled Web of Pretext Stratagems
1846: The Mexican-American War
Abraham Lincoln Doubted Polk's Pretext for War
1898: The Spanish-American War
What Happened Aboard the USS Maine?
1915: World War I
The Sinking of the Lusitania
1941: World War II
"Smoking Gun": Provoking the Pearl Harbour Attack
1950: The Korean War
South Korea Likely Provoked War with North
1954: The Covert War Against Guatemala
Arms Shipments on the Alfhem
1959: CIA Plots Soviet Arms Deal with Cuba
1962: Plans to Create Pretexts for War with Cuba
Operation Northwoods Top Secret Documents
Pretexts to Justify Military Intervention in Cuba
1964: The Vietnam War
Gulf of Tonkin: The Lie that Launched the War
1979: The Covert War in Afghanistan
1983: The Invasion of Grenada
Military Exercise Practised the Invasion and Pretext
"Pretext Hostages" Denied they were in Danger
Same Old Recycled Pretext
1986: The Bombing the Libya
La Belle Disco: Debunking the "Libya did it" Theory
1989: The Invasion of Panama
Provoking the Pretext
Drugs, Noriega and Bush Sr.
1991: The Gulf War
Incubator Deaths: A Hill & Knowlton Fabrication
Nayirah and Other "Eyewitnesses"
1999: NATO's War Against Yugoslavia in Kosovo
What Happened at 'Racak'?
The Hoax that Started a War
William Walker: CIA Operative?
2001: The "War Against Terror"
2003: The Next Iraq War
UN Resolution as Cover for U.S. War Plans
Iraq calls UN Resolution a Pretext for War
Inspectors fear they'll be used as Triggers for War
Future: New Covert U.S. Agency to "Stimulate" Terrorists