The search for Hitlers
From the comments:
From Daniel Ellsberg's 1973 book, Papers on the War, chapter entitled "The Responsibility of Officials in a Criminal War", page 281. Ellsberg writes:
I know of very few Americans as yet who have really confronted that question closely. And I think it is not too early to do so, even though the war is not over -- because some of the officials now in office are as "liberal," as "human," as any we've had in the past, with assistants as conscientious as I was helping them, and they are still continuing the war. Still keeping secrets well, still lying and killing. And I think they and others like them are likely to continue this for a long time, for many of the same reasons as in the past, unless we develop new standards both for them and for ourselves in our relation to them. So I will not wait for the others to do it; let me begin and ask myself how these things looked to me.
To go back to the question: "How could we . . . ?" I think the answer goes back in part to an event we all remember, in August, 1945. This was the same month when, unknown to me and most Americans, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, with himself as leader: a status recognized by the former Emperor and by the French. We remember August, 1945, instead, because it was the month in which the United States ended a World War with an unprecedented act of genocide, unleashing the poiwer of the sun on the people of Hiroshima.
I remember feeling, at fourteen, some uneasiness about one aspect of that event--the very evident lack of uneasiness in the announcement by our President, Hary Truman. I remember his voice on the radio as he announced in a euphoric tone the great tachnical achievement of the United States in using this powe to save American lives and to end the war. Even then I had a feeling that this was a decision that would better have been made in anguish.
On the other hand, the background to that lack of anguish is known to all of us who lived through that war. Although the atom bomb did begin a new era in the technical capabilities of wiping out mankind, the event was not in itself totally unprecedented by the usual quantitative standards which we used, then as now, to measure such achievements: the body count. As a matter of fact, the atom bomb did not kill as many people as the fire raids on Tokyo, during a period of a day or two earlier that year. Those raids created a firestorm: people who took refuge in the canals were boiled alive; the asphalt in the streets boiled; and the city of Tokyo was destroyed. And that holocaust had been predelded by similar ones: the fireestorm in Dresden; the firestorm in Hamburg; and the raids which were comparably destructive on Cologne and Berlin.
These were things that we had been doing for several years. That period was an educational process for the United States: it taught us that there were simply no limits to what was permissible for a United States President to order and carry out -- without consulting Congress or teh public -- once he determined that the stakes were sufficiently high. We emerged from that education potentially a very dangerous nation.
There is an idea that fascinated Dostoevski's Ivan Karamazov: If God does not exist, then everything is permitted. In the four years after 1941, Americans learned: Hitler exists, therefore everything is permitted. There was no limit at all -- we learned from our own actions -- to what one could justifiably do against such an enemy: one who threatened our existence, who used deception and terror, who stopped at nothing -- one who carried out actions each more terrible than the last. Even before we learned of the nearly complete destruction of the European Jews, we knew that twenty million Russians were dying in that war, and not in gas chambers. The Japanese, meanwhile, had attacked us directly. So it seemed very clear in fighting such enemies -- in fighting for one's life -- that secrecy, deception of the public along with the adversary, concentration of power in the Executive, mobilization of all resources, and the use of absolutly unlimited violence were all justified, even required.
Albert Speer tells us he has no doubt that if Hitler had been given the atom bomb, he would have used it against England. But we have no doubt what we would have done with the atom bomb, since we did get it, and used it.
All of this creted a supreme experience for many Americans, but particularly for officials close to the President. Their role had come to seem absolutely central in the world. Randolph Bourne said during the First World War, of which he was a lonely opponent: "War is the health of the state." But that is not true of all the branches and institutions of the State. The role of Congress, for example, is much diminished, and so is that of the courts and of the press. War is the health of the Presidency, and of the departmnets and agencies that serve it, the Executive branch. In no other circumstances can the President and his officials wild such unchallenged power, feel such responsibility and such awful freedom.
So what we learned -- especially members of the Executive -- in those four years from 1941 to 1945 was how exhilarating, in a certain sense, it was to have an opponent like Hitler, if one were to have an opponent at all. And we have not lacked for opponents, in the thirty years since 1941, as our officials took on what they perceived to be the challenge and responsibilities of leading half the world.
But in the last quarter of a century, Hitler has not existed, so it has been necessary to invent him. And we have invented Hitlers again and again. Stalin made a plausible one; Mao, somewhat less so. Even Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Nasser, and other nationalist leaders of obstreperous former colonies have taken on the ugise of Hitler in the eyes of various Western powers seeking to maintain their rule, however exaggerated the image may have seemed to their own allies. Thus, Eisenhower, hoping to keep the French fighting in 1954 by united U.S./U.K. support, suggested to Churchill that the challenge posed by Ho Chi Minh at Dien Bien Phu -- for example, to British intersets in Malaya -- was equivalent to that of Hitler in the Rhineland or at Munich.
posted by Steve @ 1:45:00 AM