[Marxism] From the always interesting David Gibbs

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jun 24 17:10:35 MDT 2004


David N. Gibbs, University of Arizona

The Joint Chiefs of Staff are to indicate brief but precise description 
of pretexts... for U.S. military intervention in Cuba... We could blow 
up a U.S. ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba... We could develop a 
Communist Cuban terror campaign in the Miami area, in other Florida 
cities, and even in Washington... We could sink a boatload of [refugee] 
Cubans en route to Florida (real or simulated). We could foster attempts 
on the lives of Cuban refugees in the United States even to the extent 
of wounding in instances to be widely publicized. Exploding a few 
plastic bombs... would be helpful.

--Recently declassified U.S. government document, presenting a proposed 
“Operation Northwoods,” 1962

Public benefit would soon become the pretext... perfidy and murder the end.

--Edmund Burke

This article will analyze the use of pretexts in U.S. foreign policy. 
The basic argument is that American foreign policy since 1945 has 
followed a distinct pattern, wherein policy élites have sought to 
implement programs of external expansion, which in turn have been 
frustrated by public skepticism. In order to persuade the public on the 
need for assertive action overseas – often accompanied by increases in 
the military budget – élites have sought out various pretexts to justify 
these actions. This article will explore the use of pretexts in three 
detailed case studies: North Korea’s invasion of South Korea in 1950; 
the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan during 1979-80; and the September 11, 
2001 terrorist attacks.

I will argue that U.S. foreign policy has often engaged in aggressive 
and offensive activities, which are inherently difficult to justify in 
public debate. In addition, these offensive actions have asymmetrically 
benefitted certain vested interests, notably the military-industrial 
complex, and this too has been difficult to justify. The function of 
pretexts has been to obscure these awkward features; hence the need to 
demonstrate that U.S. policy is reacting to provocations, threats to the 
national security, and the like. Undergirding this analysis is the 
assumption that the American public is often reluctant to countenance 
military action abroad. It is often thought that the American public has 
been consistently nationalistic and supportive of military force. Such 
views obscure a considerable complexity. In fact, public opinion polls 
have shown that Americans are typically reluctant to use military force 
overseas, at least initially. Proposals for military action have often 
encountered what Edward Tufte termed “uninformed skepticism and informed 
hostility.” This popular skepticism can be traced to the very beginnings 
of the Cold War when, it should not be forgotten, Harry S. Truman was 
encouraged to “scare hell out of the American people,” since this was 
felt to be the only way to elicit their support for conflict with the 

In the face of such public opposition, pretexts are often used. When 
referring to pretexts, I do so in the ordinary English language sense 
that a pretext is “an appearance assumed in order to cloak the real 
intention or state of affairs.” The basic process is simple: A dramatic 
event will be contrived to give the (mistaken) impression that a foreign 
power has threatened vital national interests. In other cases, foreign 
policy élites will simply wait for some event to occur, and will seize 
upon the event to justify actions that had, in any case, already been 
decided upon. The key point is that the policy decision occurs first, 
and is then followed by the “provocation” that is used to legitimate the 
policy. I place my work within the tradition of Herman and Chomsky, who 
emphasize the importance that deception and propaganda play even in 
formally democratic countries. Though Herman and Chomsky are generally 
considered radical critics of U.S. policy, many of their basic points 
are accepted by the mainstream realist theory of international 
relations, which also seems to recognize a “need” for élite manipulation 
of public opinion. Hans Morgenthau strongly implies such manipulation 
when he writes: “the government must realize that it is not the slave to 
public opinion; that public opinion is not a static thing to be 
discovered... it is a dynamic, ever changing entity to be continuously 
created and recreated by informed and responsible leadership; that it is 
the historic mission of the government to assert that leadership.” One 
of the easiest ways for “responsible leadership” to create and recreate 
public opinion is through the use of pretexts.

Some readers will no doubt feel uncomfortable with the general theme of 
this article, fearing that it falls in the category of a wildly 
implausible “conspiracy theory.” What this ignores is that the use of 
pretexts is well established and documented. Operation Northwoods, noted 
in the epigram above, was a Joint Chiefs of Staff project, aimed at 
fabricating some sort of pretext to justify an invasion of Cuba. It 
should be noted that this proposal was ultimately rejected and, insofar 
as the records show, never implemented. But the fact that it was 
presented at such a high level underscores that the use of pretexts as a 
foreign policy tool is well understood in official circles. In some 
cases, pretexts were not merely advocated but also implemented. Consider 
the events that attended U.S. intervention in Vietnam: It is widely 
recognized that the 1964 Tonkin Gulf incident was largely a contrived 
event, a pretext designed to achieve congressional support for the 
military escalation that the Johnson administration was seeking. The 
incident refers to alleged North Vietnamese attacks against U.S. naval 
vessels in the Tonkin Gulf. The official accounts of the “unprovoked 
attacks” involved a large measure of fabrication. The ruse was 
successful, however, as both houses of Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf 
Resolution, which effectively gave the president a carte blanche to 
intervene in Vietnam. Despite this success, White House officials saw 
the need for additional pretexts to galvanize public opinion.

Full: http://www.gened.arizona.edu/dgibbs/pretexts-04.pdf

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