MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 26

International Socialist Review, November–December 2002

Sherry Wolf

The Democrats and War: Not a real lesser evil


From International Socialist Review, Issue 26, November–December 2002.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.


EXPECTATIONS OF Democratic Party opposition to a new war on Iraq were dashed in October when 81House Democrats and 29 Democratic senators voted for Bush’s war resolution. Millions of Americans believe that those Democrats betrayed the core liberal values of their party. But the Democratic Party has always been committed to projecting U.S. military power abroad–every bit as much as the Republicans.

Even those liberals who did express opposition to the Bush doctrine of preemptive strike accept the right of the U.S. to intervene wherever it chooses. Senator Ted Kennedy’s declaration on the floor of the Senate, “I have come here today to express my view that America should not go to war against Iraq unless and until other reasonable alternatives are exhausted,” was portrayed by the media as positively dovish, even though it is a prowar position. Like Al Gore–who fears an immediate attack on Iraq would jeopardize the broader “war on terrorism”–Kennedy’s disagreement is with the manner and timing of a war, not the war itself. They argue for a multilateral war that involves a coalition of forces with the consent of the United Nations (UN) Security Council after a new round of inspections of suspected Iraqi weapons sites. In short, if the war follows the script of the last Gulf War, they will support it–just as Al Gore did in 1991.

Even Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), head of the Progressive Caucus in Congress, is careful to qualify his opposition to war by writing, “Unilateral military action by the United States against Iraq is unjustified, unwarranted, and illegal.”1 However, the distinction between multilateral and unilateral action matters little to the 200,000 Iraqis killed by coalition bombs during the last Gulf War and the more than one million victims of UN sanctions. Moreover, in practice, most of these Democrats will collapse into the prowar camp (announcing that we must rally around the president in a time of war) as soon as the attack starts, whether or not it has the UN rubber stamp.

Despite their reputation of being the party of the people, the Democrats have proven themselves to be as much a party of big business as the Republicans. Some of the biggest names in Corporate America–Archer Daniels Midland, ARCO Coal/Chemical, AT&T, Philip Morris, and RJR Nabisco–contributed more than $1 million in soft money to both parties over the past 10 years. Though labor unions do tend to back the Democrats, their total donations in the 1998 election campaigns amounted to only 3 percent of all Democratic Party contributions, compared with a whopping 63 percent from businesses.2 The ability and resilience of the liberal wing of the American ruling class, represented by the Democratic Party, to contain and channel working class discontent has been detailed and explained in past issues of this journal. Here, we aim to dispel the myth that they act–or have ever acted–as a real counterweight to the sometimes more overtly hawkish Republican party.<


The Democrats and the birth ]of American imperialism

I want to take this occasion to say that the United States will never again seek one additional foot of territory by conquest.
–Woodrow Wilson, 1913 [3]

Democratic President Woodrow Wilson’s rationale for modern imperialism, in which “the flag follows commerce,” contained no lofty appeals to freedom and democracy:

Since trade ignores national boundaries and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed against him must be battered down. Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process. Colonies must be obtained or planted, in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused.4

Wilson wrote these words just after the Spanish-American War that began in 1898, which launched the U.S. as an imperial contender. A “splendid little war”–as the New York papers dubbed it–during which Cuba became a sugar colony of the U.S., Puerto Rico began its long history as a U.S. “protectorate,” and 8 million Filipinos were subjected to brutalities beginning the very day that Rudyard Kipling published his poem calling upon the U.S. to “Take up the White Man’s burden.”5

Wilson, the mild-mannered professor from Princeton who opposed women’s suffrage, established a reputation for warmongering and brutality that was to become a hallmark of Democratic Party foreign policy. He intervened in more countries where he stationed troops for longer periods of time than had the previous Republican administrations of Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft combined.

Aside from dispatching troops to Europe in the waning years of the First World War, Wilson’s presidency exercised “gunboat diplomacy,” sending in the marines to Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Panama, the Soviet Union, Honduras, China, and Guatemala. The raid on Haiti, where U.S. troops remained for 19 years, is instructive as to the ways of Democratic methods. When National City Bank in New York insisted that the Haitian customhouses relinquish a hefty amount of the only existing reserves of Haitian capital, they refused. American troops landed at Port au Prince in December 1914 and stole $500,000 that they then loaded onto their gunship and deposited in the vaults of National City Bank. After a series of uprisings that ended in the assassination of the Haitian president, U.S. troops launched a full-blown occupation, killed thousands who resisted, disbanded the Haitian military, trained a puppet force under direct leadership of U.S. officers, and built the infrastructure necessary to turn Haiti into the haven for cheap labor that it remains today. he Nation reported that, “Those who protested or resisted were beaten into submissionÖ.Those attempting to escape were shot.”6

Unlike the direct colonial relationship that Britain had with India, the U.S. preferred to establish spheres of influence without having to resort to the costly practice of military occupation and direct colonial administration. The very threat of military occupation, combined with commercial agreements and loans with strict conditions attached, became the preferred method to subdue the nations of Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia. The U.S. also installed and backed brutal military dictators who opened their markets for U.S. plunder, such as Anastasio Samoza of Nicaragua and Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic.

While Britain and France plotted to steal the wealth and territory of the crumbling Ottoman Empire to the east, Germany tried to grab it up for itself instead. The conflict thrust the entire world into a mass slaughter of 25 million in 1914.

President Wilson, who ran as a peace candidate promising to keep America out of the First World War, kept his word just long enough for the U.S. to make a financial killing by supplying the Allies. The war catapulted the U.S. onto the top tier of global powers. By 1917, Wilson followed the calls for “profits or peace” from the House of Morgan and other Wall Street titans and sent tens of thousands of sons of the working class to their deaths in the muddy fields of Europe. This “war to end all wars,” as it was known until the next cataclysm, left New York as the new London of banking, created 21,000 new American millionaires, and reduced the wages of working people from their prewar levels by the time the truce was declared in 1919.7

In the postwar era, “peace was to be a continuation of war by other means,” wrote socialist historian Sidney Lens.8 With European powers devastated by a war that depleted their gold reserves and destroyed much of their industrial capacity, the U.S. could afford to control world markets without guns. The U.S. produced 85 percent of the world’s cars, held half the world’s gold reserves, and pumped two-thirds of known oil reserves. Wilson’s brainchild, the League of Nations–the forerunner of the United Nations–was not the international body of collaboration for peace that historians portray. Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky explained its role this way:

Under the League of Nations flag, the United States made an attempt to extend to the other side of the ocean its experience with a federated unification of large, multinational masses–an attempt to chain to its chariot of gold the peoples of Europe and other parts of the world, and bring them under Washington’s rule. In essence the League of Nations was intended to be a world monopoly corporation, “Yankee and Co.”9

Liberals and the “good war”

I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: You boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.
–Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1939 [10]

No other American foreign intervention can compare with the noble reputation of the Second World War. Every school child learns of the battle against the essence of human evil–Adolph Hitler’s fascism. Unlike all previous and subsequent wars, it is inscribed in the popular imagination as “the good war.” [See Ashley Smith’s excellent article, “World War II: The good war?” in ISR issue 10.] But America’s rationale for entry into battle in the “war for democracy and against fascism” in 1941 stretches the realms of credibility when one considers that fascists were in power in Italy under Mussolini since 1922, in Spain under Franco since 1936, and in Germany under Hitler since 1933. During the Second World War 55 million people were killed–most of them civilians. For a second time, civilization was treated to the unprecedented capacity for barbarism for which modern imperialism is uniquely suited.

The global capitalist crisis, which saw a 50 percent decline in industrial production between 1928 and 1932, laid the basis for a new carve-up of markets and territory. Living in exile from Stalin’s Russia, Leon Trotsky wrote:

The present war–the second imperialist war–is not an accident; it does not result from the will of this or that dictator. It was predicted long ago. It derived its origin inexorably from the contradiction of international capitalist interestsÖthe immediate cause of the present war is the rivalry between the old wealthy empires, Great Britain and France, and belated imperialist plunderers, Germany and Italy. U.S. capitalism is up against the same problems that pushed Germany in 1914 on the path of war. The world is divided? It must be redivided. For Germany it was a question of “organizing Europe.” The United States must “organize” the world. History is bringing humanity face to face with the volcanic eruption of American imperialism.11

After the slaughter in the trenches of Europe during the first global conflagration, American capitalists understood the need for lofty ideals as marketing tools in order to draw almost 16 million primarily working class Americans into the armed forces. There was no one better to sell this unprecedented overseas expansion of power than Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who served as president from 1933 untill his death in 1945.

The stock market crash and Great Depression that followed left one-quarter of American workers unemployed in 1932. The crisis forced FDR to create programs that would save American capitalism. Enlisting the help of the CEOs of General Electric and Standard Oil, Roosevelt developed plans to reign in the excesses of private corporations. He adopted reforms modeled on private-sector insurance plans. Though FDR is popularly believed to have been one of the greatest friends of working people in the nation, he protested this by calling himself, “the best friend the profit system ever had.”12 In 1936, he campaigned as the “savior” of “the system of private profit and free enterprise.”13 [See also Sharon Smith’s “The great pretender,” ISR issue 25.]

FDR, the scion of a powerful aristocratic New York family, understood the stakes in the war were for global economic domination. If the U.S. could avoid battle for as long as possible, while supplying the Allies who fought it out on the ground, then the U.S. would walk away from the whole affair with unprecedented industrial capacity as well as territorial booty, with minimal casualties. Roosevelt put it like this in a 1940 press conference:

As you know, the British need money in this war. They own lots of things all over the worldÖsuch as tramways and electric light companies. Well, in carrying on this war, the British may have to part with the control and we, perhaps, can step in or arrange–make the financial arrangements for eventual ownership. It is a terribly interesting thing and one of the most important things for our future trade is to study it in that light.14

Republican leaders in Congress were among the most opposed to American entry into the war. They made up the core of isolationists who preferred to profiteer from trade with the Western allies, while Germany and Russia bled each other to death. Most Republicans voted against Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease Act as late as 1941 (135 against, 24 for) because it essentially allowed the president to violate international law by selling, leasing, or transferring war material to any nation he deemed worthy. Rabid anti-communism, since the victory of the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917, echoed inside both parties and fuelled Republican resistance to aid the Soviet allies. Even Democratic Vice President Harry S. Truman suggested that “if we see that Germany is winning the war we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and in that way let them kill as many as possible.”15

The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor provided the pretext for war and clinched the domestic support that Roosevelt’s administration was angling for. The day after the bombing, the publisher of the liberal, prowar New York Times wrote, “We did not go to war because we were attacked at Pearl Harbor. I hold rather that we were attacked at Pearl Harbor because we had gone to war.” Typically, liberal publications such as The Nation were relieved to support war once the U.S. was attacked first–as if the U.S. conflict with Japan for the control of Asia could be justified simply based on who fired the first shot. Any notion that Roosevelt would wage war in such a way as to avoid civilian casualties should have been buried along with the hundreds of thousands of dead from carpet bombings, where between 250,000ñ400,000 are estimated to have perished in Dresden alone, and the firebombing of Japanese cities that produced even higher total casualties.16

Handfuls of socialists were among the very few to expose Roosevelt’s hypocrisy in waging the war. Despite New York Times stories detailing Nazi atrocities since 1933, his administration abandoned 6 million Jews to the Nazi extermination. Not only did Roosevelt refuse to bomb the railroad tracks leading to the concentration camps–which could have saved millions from the gas chambers–but he appointed an anti-Semite, Breckinridge Long, to oversee the refugee crisis. Long prevented Jews from emigrating to the U.S. because he suspected them all of being communists or even agents for Hitler.17

Perhaps the most indefensible act of imperial slaughter was left to Roosevelt’s Democratic successor, Truman. When he dropped two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945–incinerating hundreds of thousands instantly and subjecting millions more to cancer–even generals winced. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was moved to say, “Personally, I am not at all sure that we were well advised to use it.” Secretary of State Stimson, a Republican, admitted, “The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.”18 But the domestic voice of liberalism, The Nation, wrote a hearty defense of the genocide:

From the point of view of military strategy, $2 million (the cost of the bomb and the cost of nine days of war) was never better spent. The suffering, the wholesale slaughter it entailed, have been outweighed by its spectacular success; Allied leaders can rightly claim that the loss of life on both sides would have been many times greater if the atomic bomb had not been used and Japan had gone on fighting.19

Like empires before, the new American Empire “feasted on the corpses of the old.” It dictated terms in formerly British and French colonies of the oil-rich Middle East; controlled trade in Japan’s old stomping ground in the Pacific; and dominated the entire Western Hemisphere without challenge. Tens of billions of dollars in aid from the postwar Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe’s bombed out cities and industry tied them to the Pax Americana–U.S. global domination. Producing half the world’s rubber and steel and owning 60 percent of all manufacturing capacity, the U.S. was a behemoth without any immediate challengers. The bombing of a defeated Japan–what socialists view as the first act of the Cold War–put the Soviet Union and any other potential competitor on notice that the U.S. would go to any lengths to preserve its new-found power.

Camelot goes to war

We are not about to send American boys 9,000 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.
–Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964 [20]

Vietnam was the liberals’ war. John F. Kennedy came into office promoted as the dashing knight from Camelot, a figure out of the dark ages legend of King Arthur. In reality, he was the rich son of a Prohibition-era booze smuggler, “the Processed Politician,”21 who railed against the reds and assured southern Dixiecrats that he would never overturn antiunion right-to-work laws.22 Kennedy continued Eisenhower’s policy of sending armed “advisers” to Vietnam. That force reached 16,000 under his command, and according to the International Red Cross, they often observed or participated in the beating and torture of Vietnamese civilians. 23

Popular mythology promoted by films such as Oliver Stone’s JFK, presumes that had Kennedy not been assassinated in Dallas in 1963, the U.S. war in Vietnam would never have occurred. Though we’ll never know for sure, it must be noted that Kennedy did see fit to bring the planet close to nuclear annihilation in 1962 in response to Soviet missiles in Cuba. Though the USSR had had missiles with the capacity to bomb American cities for years, Kennedy, who had won the presidency by the slimmest of margins, chose to prove his own prestige and assert America’s unquestioned authority by bringing the world close to its first thermonuclear confrontation.

Millions around the world today cringe at George W. Bush’s assertion that war on Iraq is necessary to produce a “regime change,” but it is worth remembering the Bay of Pigs invasion that ended in fiasco. Kennedy gave the go-ahead to CIA operatives to land on Cuba’s beaches and remove Cuba’s popular leader, Fidel Castro, for daring to pose a threat to the U.S. by nationalizing hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. property. Though Castro offered payment in exchange, U.S. dominance had been challenged in its own hemisphere, making Castro an enemy for life. When the assault failed miserably, Kennedy was attacked in the media and by his own party for failing to use air power as cover for the insurgents.

Kennedy was far more successful in August 1963, when his administration gave a nod and supplied cash to Vietnamese generals to overthrow a hated and corrupt dictator, Ngo Dinh Diem. After Kennedy’s hopes that the U.S.-imposed “benevolent authoritarianism” of Diem could unify the country were dashed, he agreed to the coup.24 The right of the U.S. government to remove another nation’s leader was never challenged in mainstream circles. He was continuing a policy that had been pursued by virtually every American president of the 20th century.

Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and eventually Nixon, sent 58,000 working class men and women to die, and over a million more to suffer horrific battle in Southeast Asia to prevent Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from becoming communist. The “domino theory,” whereby countries one by one would “go over very quickly like a row of dominoes”25 to the competing imperialist sphere of influence–China and the USSR–was formulated in 1954 by then-President Eisenhower. Seven million tons of bombs were dropped on these peasant nations–where as many as five million were killed and tens of millions displaced–more than twice the amount dropped on Asia and Europe during all of the Second World War.26

Lyndon B. Johnson was elected in 1964 with overwhelming support from those in opposition to war in Vietnam. He ran his campaign as the “peace candidate”–promising to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam. His campaign ads portrayed his right-wing opponent, Barry Goldwater, as a man likely to bring the U.S. into a nuclear war. Fearful that Goldwater would win the election, many in the New Left Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) called for a vote for Johnson as the “lesser evil.” He won a landslide victory with 61 percent of the vote. But within months of his victory, Johnson not only sent the marines to the Dominican Republic to set up a puppet regime, but he escalated the U.S. war in Vietnam, eventually sending 550,000 troops.27 Many of the same people who raised the campaign chant, “Half the way with LBJ,” later marched chanting, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids have you killed today?” Hal Draper, a leading sixties activist and socialist summed up the lesson this way:

Who was really the Lesser Evil in 1964? The point is that it is the question which is a disaster, not the answer. In setups in which the choice is between one capitalist politician and another, the defeat comes in accepting the limitation to this choice.28

More lies surround the role of Democrats in Vietnam than most other wars. The massive shift of domestic opinion against the war, the body count on both sides, and ultimately the defeat of the U.S. compelled the liberals to rewrite their own history. The majority of working class Americans called for immediate withdrawal of the troops, including many who became soldiers–61 percent of grade school graduates and 41 percent of the college educated were for withdrawal by 1970.29 [See Joel Geier, “Vietnam: The soldiers’ rebellion,” ISR issue 9.] When the Vietnamese National Liberation Front took U.S. troops by surprise in the Tet offensive of 1968, it was clear that even if the Vietnamese guerillas might not be able to win the war militarily, it would be impossible for the Americans to win. Instead of withdrawing troops and agreeing to a peace plan immediately, LBJ threw 24,000 more men onto the killing fields of Southeast Asia.

But stalemate at a high cost took its toll on Washington’s will to continue the war. Though the U.S. entered the war in a time of unprecedented prosperity, the war’s ceaseless escalation had damaged the economy. When European banks began to redeem dollars for U.S. Treasury gold to recoup their losses, $372 million was lost in a day and Johnson feared a 1929-style collapse. He began to bombard Vietnam with limitless firepower from the air in a futile attempt to “conceal failure with brutal revenge.”30 One American general described the Vietnamese countryside in 1969: “[it] looked like the Verdun battlefields.” LBJ, who came to office promising to end the conflict in Vietnam, pursued a murderous strategy in a futile effort that destroyed the region for decades to come.

Some Democrats, who had spent the previous years defending U.S. war, suddenly posed as peaceniks. Robert Kennedy had spent his early career as a young lawyer for the McCarthyite House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1961, as Attorney General in his brother’s administration, he tried to quell civil rights protests and told James Farmer, the leader of the Congress on Racial Equality, “Why don’t you guys quit all that shit, freedom riding and sitting-in shit, and concentrate on voter registration. If you do that I’ll give you tax-free status.”31 Perceiving an opening to reclaim the throne, Kennedy reversed his long-held support for the Vietnam War and announced himself the new peace candidate. He was assassinated on the campaign trail, Johnson withdrew from running in the midst of domestic upheaval, and Nixon won the presidency. The U.S. ruling class continued the war for four more years, gradually substituting South Vietnamese troops for Americans. Finally, in 1975, U.S. forces pulled out and the puppet regime in the South collapsed. War in that “damn little pissant country,”32 as Johnson referred to Vietnam, not only led to his political demise, it proved that even mighty U.S. imperialism could be beaten.

Peace prize imperialist

We should give President Nixon our backing and support.
–Jimmy Carter, 1973 [33]

Much has been made of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize committee’s choice of recipient, Jimmy Carter. A generation has grown up watching him travel the world to promote peaceful diplomacy and build homes through his Habitat for Humanity foundation. But the millionaire peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia, with the easy smile and populist approach has a darker history as president.

Under Carter, the United States continued to support, all over the world, regimes that engaged in imprisonment of dissenters, torture, and mass murder: in the Philippines, in Iran, in Nicaragua, and in Indonesia, where the inhabitants of East Timor were being annihilated in a campaign bordering on genocide.34

Most of the hundreds of thousands of deaths in East Timor took place during the Carter administration, which increased military aid to the Indonesian dictator Suharto by 80 percent. In Zaire, Carter sent the U.S. air force to ferry Moroccan troops to put down a popular uprising against the brutal dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. He echoed Corporate America’s opposition to sanctions on the apartheid South African regime and vetoed UN Security Council resolutions that attempted to stop supplies to the racist military by U.S. companies. Carter ignored pleas from Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero to stop arms shipments and advisers to the junta there that was massacring trade unionists and human rights workers–and he continued arms transfers even after the junta brutally murdered Romero. In a move that would come back to haunt the U.S., he sent military and economic aid to strengthen the Islamic fundamentalist opposition to Soviet troops in Afghanistan.35 During a state visit in 1977, Carter toasted the Shah of Iran, calling him an “enlightened monarch who enjoys his people’s total confidence.”36 Two years later, the Shah’s forces fired upon thousands of protesters at the start of the revolution that threw him out of power.

Carter is perhaps best remembered for brokering a peace deal in the Middle East that led to Israeli forces pulling back from occupied Sinai. What is forgotten is that in exchange Egyptian president Anwar Sadat accepted billions in funds as America’s closest ally in the region after Israel. Calls for a Palestinian state were rejected, and instead Carter dramatically increased aid that went toward Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories.

The Nobel Prize committee may believe that Carter is committed to peaceful diplomacy as opposed to President Bush’s warmongering, “[b]ut in 1979, Carter signed Presidential Directive 59, establishing plans for fighting a ëlimited’ nuclear war, including a first strike policy.”37 Announcing the new “Carter Doctrine” in his 1980 State of the Union Address, Carter warned, “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”38 In the wake of the Shah’s fall, Carter was instrumental in developing the Rapid Deployment Force, capable under the new doctrine, of intervening to protect U.S. interests in the Middle East.

U.S. imperialism was seriously wounded in Vietnam–the beast had been beaten and needed to recover from domestic disillusionment and international disdain. If at times Carter pulled back from more overt military action, it had nothing to do with his supposed pacifism. Nothing about the fundamental dynamic of economic dominance by the U.S. had been altered. American multinational corporations in the late 1970s were more active internationally than ever before, and any personal abhorrence he might have had about the killing in Vietnam never amounted to aid for that country to rebuild. The human rights reforms Carter verbally pressed for in South Africa and Latin America never threatened commercial dealings with these nations that supplied the U.S. with 100 percent of industrial diamonds, coffee, and rubber.

After Carter’s election in 1976, the liberal establishment’s magazine, the New Republic, happily reassured Corporate America , “American foreign policy in the next four years will essentially extend the philosophies developedÖin the Nixon-Ford years. This is not at all a negative prospect.ÖThere should be continuity.” How right they were.

A veneer of compassion

Our objectives are clear. Our forces are strong, and our cause is right.
–Bill Clinton, regarding the 1998 deployment
of U.S. troops to the Persian Gulf. [39]

No government sends troops off to war with the declared aim of profits, plunder, and conquest. But under Bill Clinton, the “I feel your pain” president, Democrats reached new heights of hypocrisy. In the post-Cold War era, Clinton sought to preserve “stability” and maintain massive military spending in order to promote expansion to markets previously closed to the West. Two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. military spending was still 85 percent of what it was during the height of the Cold War. Bill Clinton deployed U.S. troops into combat 46 times during his eight-year presidency–more than Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush combined–yet he enjoyed almost universal support for his “humanitarian” missions.

In Somalia in 1993, Clinton continued George Bush’s Operation Restore Hope. Under the pretext of feeding the hungry, the U.S.-led UN deployment arrived months after those most threatened by hunger had already died of starvation. An estimated 10,000 Somalis were left dead at the hands of U.S. and UN forces, according to the New York Times. After 18 U.S. soldiers died in the now-famous Black Hawk Down incident, U.S. troops fled, leaving the East African nation worse off than when they arrived. This, the first of a string of “humanitarian” wars, was part of an effort to create ideological support for a reinvigorated interventionist U.S. foreign policy.

In Operation Uphold Democracy, Clinton deployed 21,000 U.S. troops in a UN mission to stop the flood of refugees arriving on Florida’s shores in 1994. Jean Bertrand Aristide, a democratically elected president and charismatic Catholic priest, had been ousted in a 1990 CIA-backed coup when he attempted to grant minimal reforms that would aid the citizens of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The military junta destroyed all forms of political and social organization, and Aristide’s supporters were hacked to death and tortured in the streets of Port au Prince with machetes. Clinton’s compassion for the desperate refugees led him to jail them in a makeshift prison camp on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The invasion was not so much to create democracy–in fact, the U.S. has worked since to undermine Aristide’s rule–as it was to restore order in Haiti and thereby justify the return of the Haitian refugees.

In Iraq, the Clinton administration not only continued a policy of bombing in illegally maintained “no fly” zones that devastated partially rebuilt infrastructure, but also the sanctions that increased misery and the death toll. When Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (at that time Clinton’s ambassador to the UN) was asked on 60 Minutes by reporter Lesley Stahl, “We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And you know, is the price worth it?” Albright replied, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.”40

Clinton’s approval to sell F-16s and other military equipment to Indonesia’s murderous regime prompted the Boston Globe to write,

The arguments presented by senators solicitous of Suharto’s regime–and of defense contractors, oil companies, and mining concerns doing business with Jakarta–made Americans seem a people willing to overlook genocide for the sake of commerce.41

Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic sits today in The Hague facing war crimes charges for his ethnic cleansing of Croatians, Bosnian Muslims, and Kosovar Albanians in a series of wars that raged through the middle of Europe in the 1990s. But the role of the Clinton administration in playing nationalist leaders off of one another in a cynical power play to divide and conquer the former Yugoslavia–as well as a bombing campaign on Serbia led by U.S.-NATO forces that targeted the country’s civilian infrastructure–should place Clinton alongside Milosevic in shackles. This “deliberate terror campaign,” as journalist John Pilger described NATO’s war, helped reduce a multiethnic society into ethnically cleansed territories dominated by nationalist warmongers under the control of NATO–itself a tool of U.S. imperial power in Europe.42 NATO’s 1999 war was launched ostensibly to help Kosovar-Albanian refugees, but its impact made the refugee crisis worse, and later facilitated the ethnic cleansing of the Serb population in Kosovo.

According to Michel Chussodovsky, professor of economics at the University of Ottawa, U.S. and NATO planes conducted thousands of bombing sorties against Serbia, directed not only “against industrial plants, airports, electricity, and telecommunications facilities, railways, bridges, and fuel depots, [but] alsoÖschools, health clinics, day care centers, government buildings, churches, museums, monasteries, and historical landmarks.”43 According to the International Center for Peace and Justice: “No city or town in Yugoslavia is being spared. There are untold civilian casualties. The beautiful capital city of Belgrade is in flames and fumes from a destroyed chemical plant are making it necessary to use gas masks.”44 U.S.-NATO forces even deliberately blew up the Belgrade TV station building in an April 1999 cruise missile attack, killing 16 people. NATO officials justified the attack on the grounds that the station was disseminating pro-government propaganda.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent implosion of the USSR in 1991, meant that Clinton was the first president to not have the “communist threat” as a rationale for war since the U.S. had achieved superpower status. But instead of distributing a multibillion-dollar peace dividend that could have paid for universal health care and a rebuilt education system, as promised, Clinton’s policies continued the imperial priorities of the system. Though he presided over the greatest boom in the history of capitalism, very little of it went to American workers. Even Republican advisers such as Kevin Phillips are compelled to rail against the unprecedented gap between rich and poor that is the legacy of that boom. Clinton continued to funnel billions into the military and paid for it by carrying out the now infamous “welfare reform,” which gutted the country’s social safety net.

Tragically, Clinton’s foreign exploits from Somalia to the ravaging of Yugoslavia were done with enormous support from liberal politicians and publications. The Nation ran numerous articles supporting the Kosovo war, including a prominent piece by Democratic Socialists of America leader, Bogdan Denitch. Even Jesse Jackson appeared on MSNBC arguing that Martin Luther King would have supported U.S. troops in Kosovo.45


There are many Democrats and liberals who have sided with Bush’s war drive–and only wish it to be as painless and bloodless as possible. As the editors of the liberal Democratic Party mouthpiece, The American Prospect, explain: “If the deed is to be done, ëtwere better done quickly: Let the fighting be mercifully brief, the casualties few, and the American victory complete.”46 Moreover, even those Democrats who have been critical of this war are not opposed to U.S. intervention against Iraq, but merely disagree about how to go about doing it.

Nevertheless, unlike the war in Afghanistan, which had broad liberal support, there is a far wider swath of liberal opposition to a unilateral attack on Iraq. The Nation, for example, which backed the war in Afghanistan, sees the war against Iraq as a diversion from what they consider to be the legitimate “war on terror.”

Activists must learn the real history of liberals at war if a politically dynamic, broad, and successful opposition to a new slaughter in the desert is to be built. During the last war against Iraq, many liberal groups including Sane-Freeze (now Peace Action) called for sanctions as an alternative to war (though even then it was clear that sanctions were a component of the war), and were horrified later that sanctions killed even more than the bombings. Some in antiwar circles today worry that anti-imperialist arguments inside a broad movement that expose liberal equivocation and support of the war will drive away those new to activism and politics. But increased clarity about what the real aims of the U.S. are in the Middle East–control of oil–and about who poses the biggest threat to the region –the U.S.–will strengthen, not weaken, the movement.

Journalist Liza Featherstone wrote in The Nation that the left should drop its talk of the Afghanistan war–“a fait accompli,” as she put it–to build broader opposition to war on Iraq. Exactly the opposite is true. The Afghan war killed thousands and has left that country run by fanatical warlords led by a president handpicked by the U.S., and it has done nothing to halt terrorism. Almost every Democrat in Congress and liberal publication supported that war, in which fighting terror was used as a pretext for advancing U.S. strategic aims in the region that had been planned before September 11. It was the lack of a large anti-imperialist opposition that allowed political confusion and isolation to sideline the burgeoning movement that was attacked by liberals and the Bush hawks alike.

The strength of the new movement is its breadth. There are now hundreds of thousands of people across the country committed to protesting this war–and that number is growing. But there are many liberals whose commitment to opposing this war will flag and even collapse if the U.S. is able to get UN approval for it. There is a difference between building a movement that invites broad participation and activism around a simple set of demands–against war, against sanctions–and downplaying the importance of clear politics. The clearer our movement is about what drives American foreign policy, the need to reject the lies about “fighting terrorism” and other excuses for imperial power projection, and the role the Democratic Party has played as a supporter of U.S. power abroad, the stronger our movement will be.

* * *


1 Dennis Kucinich, “The bloodstained path,” The Progressive, November 2002, p. 16. Italics added.

2 Alan Maass, “Will the Democrats ever fight?” Socialist Worker, October 18, 2002, p.8.

3 Sidney Lens, The Forging of the American Empire (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1971), p. 220.

4 Ibid., p. 195.

5 Ibid., p.186.

6 Ibid., p.225.

7 Ibid., pp. 239–243.

8 Ibid., p. 267.

9 Ibid., p. 266.

10 Ibid., p. 313.

11 Ashley Smith, “World War II: The good war?,” .International Socialist Review, issue 10, pp. 53–54.

12 Kenneth S. Davis, FDR: The New Deal Years, 1933ñ37 (New York: Random House, 1986), p. 372.

13 Ibid., p. 675.

14 Lens, p. 311.

15 Lens, p. 334.

16 Lens, p. 326.

17 Smith, p. 57.

18 Lens, p. 347.

19 Freda Kirchwey, “One world or none,” The Nation, August 18, 1945 available at www.thenation.com.

20 Lens, p. 421.

21 Herbert S. Parmet, The Democrats: The Years After FDR (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 167.

22 Ibid., p. 173.

23 Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (New York: HarperPerennial, 1992), p. 469.

24 Gabriel Kolko, Anatomy of a War (New York: The New Press, 1994), pp. 117–118.

25 Jonathan Neale, The American War: Vietnam, 1960–1975, (London: Bookmarks, 2001), p. 54.

26 Zinn, p. 469.

27 Lance Selfa, Socialists and the Democratic Party: A Lesser Evil? (Chicago: Bookmarks, 1988), p. 27.

28 Ibid., p. 27.

29 Zinn, p. 482.

30 Kolko, p. 324.

31 Chris Harman, The Fire Last Time (London: Bookmarks, 1988), p. 29.

32 Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Penguin Books, 1997), p. 411.

33 Zinn, p. 555.

34 Zinn, p. 554.

35 Stephen Zunes, “Carter’s less-known legacy,” online at www.commondreams.org, October 18, 2002.

36 Lance Selfa, “The real history of a Nobel winner,” Socialist Worker, November 1, 2002, p. 9.

37 Ibid.

38 1980 State of the Union Address, Jimmy Carter Library web site, at www.jimmycarterlibrary.org/documents/speeches/su80jec.phtml.

39 Bill Clinton, in a press conference, online at www.americanpresident.org.

40 60 Minutes interview, May 12, 1996.

41 Quoted in Zinn, p. 638.

42 See International Socialist Review, issue 8, “New masters of the Balkans” for a full explanation of the history and politics of the war.

43 Michel Chussodovsky, “Impact of NATO bombing (till April 11),” Press release of the Ad-hoc Committee to Stop Canada’s Participation in the War in Yugoslavia, April 19, 1999.

44 Ibid.

45 “The liberals’ war,” International Socialist Review, issue 7, p. 6.

46 Paul Starr, Robert Kuttner, and Harold Meyerson, “A reckless rush to war,” The American Prospect, October 21, 2002, p. 2.

Last updated on 28 August 2023