How to Sell a War

In April 1946, while being held at Nuremberg as a Nazi war criminal, Hermann Göring told an interviewer how to start a war: “Of course the people don’t want war. … But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it is a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. … All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger. It works the same way in any country.” [1] While Göring was wrong about many things, here he was right on. 

The sinking of the USS Maine set off the Spanish-American War even though little evidence pointed to Spain as the culprit. Aside from the lack of evidence, what did Spain have to gain by such an act?

The second Gulf of Tonkin Incident that gave Johnson the legal justification for escalating the Viet Nam War  never happened.

In 1962’s Operation Northwoods, all members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had signed off on a plan for a Remember-the-Maine-type-incident to create public support for an invasion of Castro’s Cuba. Among other options, the plan suggested that “We could blow up a US ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba.”

President Bush’s repeated linking of Saddam and 9/11 caused American belief of such a connection to jump from 3% right after 9/11 to 44% two months prior to our invasion of Iraq, and 69% seven months later. It is worth noting that former Vice President Cheney has since stated: “I do not believe, and I have never seen any evidence, that he [Saddam Hussein] was involved in 9/11.”

These acts of deception are bad enough by themselves, killing almost 60,000 American and millions of Vietnamese in just that one war. But, in the nuclear age there is an added danger. The Cuban Missile Crisis grew out of a confrontation over a third world hot spot, and the Georgian war of 2008 had a similar, fortunately unrealized, potential. Because every small war has some chance of escalating, we have an added incentive to critically examine accusations that might lead to war. Göring’s Nazi Germany perpetrated a horrendous Holocaust. Let us not be unwitting partners in an even greater one by buying wars under false pretenses.

Martin Hellman

[1]: Gustave M. Gilbert, Nuremberg Diary. My thanks go to Paul Chappell, Peace Leadership Director at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, for pointing this quote out to me.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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