Today I take on a topic that we really don’t like to talk about. It creates grave cognitive dissonance in our minds, forcing us to deeply question the moral character of our entire nation.
Yet it is undeniably a fact:
Most US Presidents are war criminals.
There is a long tradition of war crimes by US Presidents which includes Obama, Bush, Nixon, and above all Johnson and Truman.
Barack Obama has ordered so-called “double-tap” drone strikes, which kill medics and first responders, in express violation of the Geneva Convention.
Bill Clinton ordered “extraordinary renditions” in which suspects were detained without trial and transferred to other countries for interrogation, where we knew they would most likely be tortured.
I actually had trouble finding any credible accusations of war crimes by George H.W. Bush (there are definitely accusations, but none of them are credible—seriously, people are listening to Manuel Noriega?), even as Director of the CIA. He might not be a war criminal.
Ronald Reagan supported a government in Guatemala that was engaged in genocide. He knew this was happening and did not seem to care. This was only one of many tyrannical, murderous regimes supported by Reagan’s administration. In fact, Ronald Reagan was successfully convicted of war crimes by the International Court of Justice. Chomsky isn’t wrong about this one. Ronald Reagan was a convicted war criminal.
Jimmy Carter is a major exception to the rule; not only are there no credible accusations of war crimes against him, he has actively fought to pursue war crimes investigations against Israel and even publicly discussed the war crimes of George W. Bush.
I also wasn’t able to find any credible accusations of war crimes by Gerald Ford, so he might be clean.
But then we get to Richard Nixon, who deployed chemical weapons against civilians in Vietnam. (Calling Agent Orange “herbicide” probably shouldn’t matter morally—but it might legally, as tactical “herbicides” are not always war crimes.) But Nixon does deserve some credit for banning biological weapons.
Indeed, most of the responsibility for war crimes in Vietnam falls upon Johnson. The US deployed something very close to a “total war” strategy involving carpet bombing—more bombs were dropped by the US in Vietnam than by all countries in WW2—as well as napalm and of course chemical weapons; basically it was everything short of nuclear weapons. Kennedy and Johnson also substantially expanded the US biological weapons program.
Speaking of weapons of mass destruction, I’m not sure if it was actually illegal to expand the US nuclear arsenal as dramatically as Kennedy did, but it definitely should have been. Kennedy brought our nuclear arsenal up to its greatest peak, a horrifying 30,000 deployable warheads—more than enough to wipe out human civilization, and possibly enough to destroy the entire human race.
While Eisenhower was accused of the gravest war crime on this list, namely the genocide of over 1 million people in Germany, most historians do not consider this accusation credible. Rather, his war crimes were committed as Supreme Allied Commander, in the form of carpet bombing, especially of Tokyo, which killed as many as 200,000 people, and of Dresden, which had no apparent military significance and even held a number of Allied POWs.
But then we get to Truman, the coup de grace, the only man in history to order the use of nuclear weapons in warfare. Truman gave the order to deploy nuclear weapons against civilians. He was the only person in the history of the world to ever give such an order. It wasn’t Hitler; it wasn’t Stalin. It was Harry S. Truman.
Then of course there’s Roosevelt’s internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans. It really pales in comparison to Truman’s order to vaporize an equal number of Japanese civilians in the blink of an eye.
I think it will suffice to end the list here, though I could definitely go on. I think Truman is a really good one to focus on, for two reasons that pull quite strongly in opposite directions.
1. The use of nuclear weapons against civilians is among the gravest possible crimes. It may be second to genocide, but then again it may not, as genocide does not risk the destruction of the entire human race. If we only had the option of outlawing one thing in war, and had to allow everything else, we would have no choice but to ban the use of nuclear weapons against civilians.
2. Truman’s decision may have been justified. To this day is still hotly debated whether the atomic bombings were justifiable; mainstream historians have taken both sides. On Debate.org, the vote is almost exactly divided—51% yes, 49% no. Many historians believe that had Truman not deployed nuclear weapons, there would have been an additional 5 million deaths as a result of the continuation of the war.
Perhaps now you can see why this matter makes me so ambivalent.
There is a part of me that wants to take an absolute hard line against war crimes, and say that they must never be tolerated, that even otherwise good Presidents like Clinton and Obama deserve to be tried at the Hague for what they have done. (Truman and Eisenhower are dead, so it’s too late for them.)
But another part of me wonders what would happen if we did this. What if the world really is so dangerous that we have no choice but to allow our leaders to commit horrible atrocities in order to defend us?
There are easy cases—Bush’s torture program didn’t even result in very much useful intelligence, so it was simply a pointless degradation of our national character. The same amount of effort invested in more humane intelligence gathering would very likely have provided more reliable information. And in any case, terrorism is such a minor threat in the scheme of things that the effort would be better spent on improving environmental regulations or auto safety.
Similarly, there’s no reason to engage in “extraordinary rendition” to a country that tortures people when you could simply conduct a legitimate trial in absentia and then arrest the convicted terrorist with special forces and imprison him in a US maximum-security prison until his execution. (Or even carry out the execution directly by the special forces; as long as the trial is legitimate, I see no problem with that.) At that point, the atrocities are being committed simply to avoid inconvenience.
But especially when we come to the WW2 examples, where the United States—nay, the world—was facing a genuine threat of being conquered by genocidal tyrants, I do begin to wonder if “victory by any means necessary” is a legitimate choice.
There is a way to cut the Gordian knot here, and say that yes, these are crimes, and should be punished; but yes, they were morally justified. Then, the moral calculus any President must undergo when contemplating such an atrocity is that he himself will be tried and executed if he goes through with it. If your situation is truly so dire that you are willing to kill 100,000 civilians, perhaps you should be willing to go down with the ship. (Roger Fisher made a similar argument when he suggested implanting the nuclear launch codes inside the body of a US military officer. If you’re not willing to tear one man apart with a knife, why are you willing to vaporize an entire city?)
But if your actions really were morally justified… what sense does it make to punish you for them? And if we hold up this threat of punishment, could it cause a President to flinch when we really need him to take such drastic action?
Another possibility to consider is that perhaps our standards for war crimes really are too strict, and some—not all, but some—of the actions I just listed are in fact morally justifiable and should be made legal under international law. Perhaps the US government is right to fight the UN convention against cluster munitions; maybe we need cluster bombs to successfully defend national security. Perhaps it should not be illegal to kill the combat medics who directly serve under the command of enemy military forces—as opposed to civilian first-responders or Medecins Sans Frontieres. Perhaps our tolerance for civilian casualties is unrealistically low, and it is impossible to fight a war in the real world without killing a large number of civilians.
Then again, perhaps not. Perhaps we are too willing to engage in war in the first place, too accustomed to deploying military force as our primary response to international conflict. Perhaps the prospect of facing a war crimes tribunal in a couple of years should be an extra layer of deterrent against any President ordering yet another war—by some estimates we have been at war 93% of the time since our founding as a nation, and it is a well-documented fact that we have by far the highest military spending in the world. Why is it that so many Americans see diplomacy as foolish, see compromise as weakness?
Perhaps the most terrifying thing is not that so many US Presidents are war criminals; it is that so many Americans don’t seem to have any problem with that.