Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 25, 2007

George W. Bush’s history lesson to the VFW

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,Iraq — louisproyect @ 5:24 pm

I was curious to examine the speech George W. Bush gave to the Veterans of Foreign War convention last week since it compared Iraq with Vietnam. Three years ago I gave an interview to BBC in Ireland on exactly the same question. While there are obvious differences between the NLF and the decentralized and often nihilistic Iraqi insurgency, I hoped that the occupation of Iraq would end the same way, with Americans dangling from helicopter rails as they beat a hasty retreat from the Green Zone.

I.F. Stone

The speech itself is remarkable for literary references that seem utterly remote from George W. Bush’s experience, including one made to the radical journalist I.F. Stone who published a newsweekly throughout the 50s and 60s that I subscribed to. Bush took exception to Stone’s “Hidden History of the Korean War.”

After the North Koreans crossed the 38th Parallel in 1950, President Harry Truman came to the defense of the South — and found himself attacked from all sides. From the left, I.F. Stone wrote a book suggesting that the South Koreans were the real aggressors and that we had entered the war on a false pretext.

Bush also singled out Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American,” a novel that was set in Vietnam in the 1950s and that in its own way was critical of American colonialism. This is another book that I have read and which led me to the conclusions at odds with Bush, who referred to it in the following terms:

After America entered the Vietnam War, the Graham Greene argument gathered some steam. As a matter of fact, many argued that if we pulled out there would be no consequences for the Vietnamese people…The world would learn just how costly these misimpressions would be.

My first reaction to these references was to assume that Bush was simply reading a speech written by one of his aides, since his thinking seems to be influenced exclusively by the Washington Times and other neocon outlets. I can’t imagine George W. Bush ever opening up I.F. Stone’s history of the Korean War but can picture a Christopher Hitchens, David Horowitz or Paul Berman writing such a speech. These ideological converts to American imperialism would have first-hand experience with I.F. Stone or Graham Greene, who were required reading for radical intellectuals in the 1960s.

Graham Greene

This is not the first time that George W. Bush has demonstrated familiarity with literature generally unavailable at airport newsstands. During his summer vacation in 2006, he supposedly read Albert Camus’s “The Stranger.” Who knows why. Maybe he was getting vicarious pleasure from the opening scene, which involves a French settler in Algeria shooting a native after waking up on the wrong side of bed. Later on, Bush read Alistair Horne’s “A Savage War of Peace,” a history of the war in Algeria that I read as background for an MRZine article on the movie “The Battle of Algiers”. Bush must have read it to get tips on how to defeat the insurgency in Iraq, just the way that the Pentagon scheduled screenings of “The Battle of Algiers.”

After Horne learned that Bush found his book “most useful,” he told Salon.com that he was “stunned.” Originally a supporter of the war, Horne–like most of sentient humanity–began to retreat from that position. He was especially averse to the use of torture, since one of the lessons of the Algerian war is that it is counter-productive. This, indeed, is the universal criterion adopted by both liberal and conservative critics of the war in Iraq. If it is not working, then there must be a change. Implicitly, if the war were going well–as it had in the invasion of Grenada and Panama in the 1980s–there would be no objection.

Whether or not Bush has read I.F. Stone or anybody else for that matter, his speech is a significant challenge both to radicals who share Stone’s perspective as well as his mainstream critics who have given up on the war in Iraq because it is not producing results. Drawing upon the examples of imperialist wars going back to WWII, Bush puts forward the most extreme case for staying in Iraq until victory is achieved. Unlike the Congressional “opposition,” he sees no need for collective decision-making. It is his way or the highway.

When the NY Times reported that various scholars took exception to the lessons that Bush drew from history, they only quoted those who remained safely within the mainstream. For example, Steven Simon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, pointed out that unlike in Iraq the allies had destroyed the Japanese and German governments and deployed an occupation force three times as large as that in Iraq. He said, “That’s the kind of troop level you need to control the situation. The occupation of Germany and Japan lasted for years — and not a single American solider was killed by insurgents.” So, I guess the lesson Simon draws is that you need a much bigger imperialist invasion. Too bad the NY Times doesn’t have Howard Zinn’s number in their rolodex.

Turning now to Bush’s speech itself, one is struck by its determination to steamroll over any objections to the war. Although critics have often likened Bush to Richard Nixon, there was never anything in Nixon’s rhetoric like this. He tried assiduously to represent himself as trying to “wind down” the war in Vietnam, while Bush’s rhetoric is much more like Reagan’s triumphalism during the Central American wars of the 1980s. This obviously reflects Bush’s wholesale flight from reality that is also seen on display in the very fine German film “Downfall,” which dramatizes Hitler desperate attempts to rally his followers in his bunker.

Bush tells the audience:

We fight for the possibility that decent men and women across the broader Middle East can realize their destiny — and raise up societies based on freedom and justice and personal dignity. And as long as I’m Commander-in-Chief we will fight to win. I’m confident that we will prevail. I’m confident we’ll prevail because we have the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known — the men and women of the United States Armed Forces.

It is too bad that the Democrats lack such a fighting spirit. If they were half as determined to end the war as Bush is to prosecute it, it would have ended long ago. The explanation for this, of course, is that they are only verbally opposed to the war. Even now, all the leading DP candidates for president state that American troops must remain in the Middle East to stave off chaos.

Bush begins his history lesson with the attack on Pearl Harbor, which supposedly came out of the blue like 9/11. In Bush’s words, both al Qaeda and Imperial Japan supposedly despise freedom, and harbor resentment “at the slights he believes America and Western nations have inflicted on his people.” If Bush took the trouble to attack I.F. Stone’s revisionist account of the Korean War, one wonders why Bush or his ghost-writer were reluctant to take up similar challenges to the official version of December 7, 1941. Charles Beard, an early revisionist on WWII, refers to remarks made to the War Cabinet by Henry Stimson in November, 1941 in his “President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War 1941.”

One problem troubled us very much. If you know that your enemy is going to strike you, it is not usually wise to wait until he gets the jump on you by taking the initiative. In spite of the risk involved, however, in letting the Japanese fire the first shot, we realized that in order to have the full support of the American people it was desirable to make sure that the Japanese be the ones to do this so there should remain no doubt in anyone’s mind as to who were the aggressors…We discussed the possibility of a statement summarizing all the steps of aggression that the Japanese had already taken, the encirclement of our interests in the Philippines which was resulting and the threat to our vital supplies of rubber from Malay. I reminded the president that on Aug. 19 [1941] he had warned the Japanese Ambassador that if the steps which the Japanese were then taking continued across the border into Thailand, he would regard it as a matter affecting our safety, and suggested that he might point our that the moves the Japanese were now apparently on the point of making would be in fact a violation of a warning that had already been given.

It is safe to say that if war with Japan was really about rubber and oil, then the war in Iraq was about controlling strategic assets as well. The only “freedom” at stake in the Pacific and the Middle East was the freedom to make a profit.

When Bush takes up the Korean War, it is clearly with an eye to undermining his opponents in the Republican Party like Chuck Hagel and John Warner, whose engagement with reality is far too extreme for the White House to accept. Despite the swipe at I.F. Stone, most of his polemics are directed against his own party members:

From the right, Republicans vacillated. Initially, the leader of the Republican Party in the Senate endorsed Harry Truman’s action, saying, “I welcome the indication of a more definite policy” — he went on to say, “I strongly hope that having adopted it, the President may maintain it intact,” then later said “it was a mistake originally to go into Korea because it meant a land war.”

Throughout the war, the Republicans really never had a clear position. They never could decide whether they wanted the United States to withdraw from the war in Korea, or expand the war to the Chinese mainland. Others complained that our troops weren’t getting the support from the government. One Republican senator said, the effort was just “bluff and bluster.” He rejected calls to come together in a time of war, on the grounds that “we will not allow the cloak of national unity to be wrapped around horrible blunders.”

Apparently, Bush identifies strongly with Harry Truman. Not long after finishing Alistair Horne’s book on Algeria, Bush followed up with David McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman, who presided over another bloody colonial intervention. In 1952, during the depths of the Korean War, Truman’s approval ratings dropped to 22 percent, about 10 points lower than Bush’s. Maybe the only lesson that can be drawn from Truman and the Korean War is that Democratic presidents, including a New Dealer like Truman, are just as capable of inflicting atrocities on a population fighting against colonialism as their Republic rivals.

Truman was replaced by Eisenhower, a Republican, who ended the war after seeing the handwriting on the wall. Even I.F. Stone, risking “total excommunication” on the left from the ADA to the Trotskyists, wrote a column in June 13, 1953 urging a slogan “Back Ike for Peace” in more or less the same spirit that Tariq Ali urged a vote for the Liberal Democrat candidate against Tony Blair. Although I am generally hostile to backing bourgeois candidates, I hold fire when it comes to an I.F. Stone or a Tariq Ali. Taking note of Democratic politicians determined to run from the right against the Republican left, just as JFK ran against Nixon in 1960, Stone wrote contemptuously in January 17, 1955:

The Democrats will make capital in the West on power; keep mum on civil rights for Negroes; do nothing for labor; jump on Reds as hard as Republicans to prove their purity; exploit the discontent over the security program and at the same time kick up a fuss about cuts in the defense budget to show that the Republicans are the ones who are really “soft” about communism. The country, generally as contented as the Borden cow, will take all this without a moo as long as business holds up. There may be a change in the spring, however, when the auto industry finds it just cannot sell all those new cars it is making.

After dealing maladroitly with Japan and Korea, Bush turns his attention to the Vietnam war that most commentators equate to the current war in Iraq. Besides attacking Graham Greene, Bush takes a swipe at Senator Fulbright, an early and persistent opponent of the war in Vietnam, who is not mentioned by name, but whose words are quoted thusly:

What earthly difference does it make to nomadic tribes or uneducated subsistence farmers in Vietnam or Cambodia or Laos, whether they have a military dictator, a royal prince or a socialist commissar in some distant capital that they’ve never seen and may never heard of?

It should be mentioned that this view, while hardly amounting to vigorous anti-imperialism, is virtually the same as Graham Greene, who uses the character Thomas Fowler, a cynical British journalist, as a mouthpiece for his own sentiments. In a confrontation with the CIA agent Alden Pyle, Fowler describes a Vietnamese people who believe in nothing but the following: “They want enough rice. They don’t want to be shot at. They don’t want our white skins telling them what they want.” While this is a step up from George W. Bush’s worldview, it hardly does justice to the liberation struggle in Vietnam that had been going on for more than a century. If history teaches us anything, it is that the people of Vietnam and Iraq will not allow colonists to rule over them.



  1. It’s beginning to look more and more like Stalingrad than Vietnam.
    Can they really be so stupid as to think that they can even today
    contemplate a military strike against Iran as well? Who knows what
    evil lurks in the mind of Bush. Perhaps The Shadow nows?

    from the August 24, 2007 edition –
    An intensifying US campaign against Iran
    Amid US charges of Iran’s hand in Iraq’s instability,
    some counsel caution.

    Even if they show THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS at the Pentagon
    as training material, they have an organic incapacity to
    understand it because they think they can crush these
    foreign peoples with strange-sounding names and Gods.

    Good comments, Louis!

    Walter Lippmann
    Los Angeles, California


    Comment by Walter Lippmann — August 25, 2007 @ 5:48 pm

  2. Whew! Hard to venture a comment after Walter Lippman!

    Thanks, Louis, for a very fine piece of writing. I am just reading (almost 40 years late) Frances Fitzgerald’s Fire in the Lake, a marvelous analysis of Vietnamese culture and history prior to the French and US efforts at colonization. She would disagree with your remark that the Vietnamese had been fighting for their freedom for a hundred years. Her view of their culture is that it was much more village and local clan centered, acquiescent and obediant to distant authority mediated by a mandarin class. Traditional and pragmatic are also qualities she observes, including willingness to adapt to almost any ruler.
    Of course, we managed to destroy much of that traditional culture, just as we are doing in Iraq.
    Bush’s claimed reading list is really hilarious, when you think about it. I suppose he could have picked up the history of congressional debate and Republican wavering on Vietnam from his Dad, but somehow the image doesnt quite fit.

    Comment by plato's cave — August 25, 2007 @ 9:24 pm

  3. It looks to me as though the “president” is citing some of the sources he’s citing in order to shore up support for the war from wavering “democrats”. Nothing like a steady dose of intellectual pretense to get corporate liberals energized in their defense of the empire.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux Perez — August 25, 2007 @ 11:46 pm

  4. Maybe this speech is a parting gift from Rove. His modus operandum is always to attack the strong point of the opposition, and the Iraq/Vietnam link (even if not accurate in many ways except the idea of quagmire) is one of the opposition’s strongest points. But I think Louis is also right in suggesting that Bush here is trying to compare himself to an admired political figure — Truman, in this case, following Churchill earlier. The mention of Truman, btw, also undercuts current Democrats, who are seen as weaker than HST.

    Comment by plato's cave — August 26, 2007 @ 3:37 am

  5. After receiving mail from novelist and old friend Richard Greener bringing my attention to the fact that his good friend Tom Clancy’s novels are not reducible to George W. Bush’s worldview, I dropped the reference to him in the article above. I have to confess that I have never read Clancy, but developed a real dislike to the films based on his novels. Will give him a try at some point…

    Comment by louisproyect — August 27, 2007 @ 2:03 pm

  6. Halberstam wrote this shortly before his untimely death on the Cheney admin’s ever-increasing reliance on “history” as a source of justification:


    Good post. This speech makes me wonder, “what will they think of next?” to justify their wars.

    Comment by Binh — August 27, 2007 @ 3:24 pm

  7. Louis,
    Another popular novelist you might not have tried is Taylor Caldwell, whose novel Captains and the Kings is a well-told rags to riches tale of a powerful American speculator/financier (some saw likenesses to Joe Kennedy) and a convincing fictional portrayal of the secret financial cabal that controls politics in the major western countries. The further I read into this book, the more my jaw dropped open, to think that “America’s most beloved story-teller” could advance such a radical thesis.

    Comment by plato's cave — August 27, 2007 @ 6:48 pm

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