Rhetoric and War

by Stanley Meisler

September 25, 2001

An all-out American war against terrorism is unprecedented. But much of the rhetoric by our politicians has a familiar ring. The president says we are in a "crusade" against "a new kind of evil" and that each nation must decide whether "you are with us or you are with the terrorists." The vice president says we must recruit some "very unsavory characters" as we battle on "the dark side." The president's father, a former president himself and a former CIA chief, calls on us to "free up the intelligence system" by removing the shackles on the CIA. Congressmen second the call. The attorney general demands new powers, insisting it is easier under present law to spy on "someone involved in illegal gambling schemes than...someone involved in terrorism."

These words echo from the past in an eerie way. I heard these kind of arguments from American politicians and diplomats often as a foreign and Washington correspondent for more than 30 years during the Cold War. The Cold War, after all, was not only a conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States but also the setting for an American crusade against communism. The parallels are not exact, but they are close enough to flash uneasy signals. The Cold War anti-Communist rhetoric emboldened and reinforced zealots with extreme solutions and made it difficult and sometimes unpatriotic for others to try to stand in their way.

The American people are demanding that their leaders punish the guilty and prevent a repetition of the despicable act of September 11. President Bush promises to move aggressively and totally against a shadowy enemy. He is right, of course, to do so. But he and the rest of the Washington Establishment need to rein their bluster and avoid repeating the excesses of the Cold War and the crusade against communism. It may seem mean-spirited to find faults in a war and crusade that, all in all, we won. But there were faults, some egregious.

First of all, we had a witch hunt at home during the Cold War. Senator Joseph McCarthy, the House Un-American Activities Committee and other crusaders hounded American diplomats, Hollywood writers and anyone else who seemed to stray too far left. Jobs were lost, lives broken, and stubborn leftists imprisoned. We were told we had to root out the commies, subversives, fellow travelers and comsymps in our midst. Even members of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion who fought against Hitler and Mussolini during the Spanish Civil War and again during World War II were fair game because of their red youth.

President Bush has made a noble attempt to ward off persecution of Muslim Americans, but the real danger may come later when members of Congress begin the inevitable investigation of American Muslim organizations that fund developmental and charitable projects abroad. It may be difficult for a politician to tell the difference between a Samaritan and a terrorsymp.

The hunt for allies who stood with us rather than against us led to the embrace of repressive dictators like Rafael Leonidas Trujillo of the Dominican Republic and Francisco Franco of Spain. Their profession of love for America and contempt for communism excused, in our eyes, an awful lot of sins. In the same way, we supported and armed regimes like those of El Salvador and Guatemala that committed horrific civilian atrocities in wars against guerrillas branded as communist. The United States even paid for the military training of Osama Bin Laden when our crusade against communism led us to arm any Muslim who would rush into battle against Soviet troops in Afghanistan.

Anti-Communist rhetoric distorted our politics and legislative process. Administrations persuaded Congress to build highways, assist poor countries and subsidize language and science study not because these goals were worthwhile in themselves but because they somehow strengthened defense and fought communism. The Wall Street Journal has already urged President Bush to push through his entire conservative agenda because "the bloody attacks have created a unique political moment when Americans of all stars and stripes are united behind their president." It is hard to keep politics out of crusades.

Finally, we need to remember that words of resolve can lay snares even as they inspire us. In his speech to Congress on Thursday night, the finest of his career, President Bush said, "We will direct every resource at our command -- every means of diplomacy, every tool of intelligence, every instrument of law enforcement, every financial influence and every necessary weapon of war -- to the disruption and defeat of the global terror network." Forty years ago, at the height of the Cold War, President John F. Kennedy, in one of the most eloquent inaugural addresses of the 20th century, said, "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." His words reflected and encouraged a resolve that led eventually to the quagmire of Vietnam.

Only a milquetoast would fault President Bush for pursuing the terrorists. Only a blackguard would believe that America was punished deservedly for its current social immorality or past military escapades. Yet the battle against terrorism is fraught with dangers. Argentina, for example, wiped out its terrorists in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But it did so at the cost of thousands of innocent lives. Not content to kill terrorists, the military junta, supported by most Argentines, resolved to eliminate those circles of society that, in their view, encouraged or bred terrorists. The torture and murder of supposed sympathizers was accompanied by suppression of politics and labor unions, curtailment of university life and censorship of books, plays, movies and songs. Argentina's success against terrorism was one of its greatest failures. Ernesto Sabato, the novelist who headed the commission that investigated the carnage in the military's crusade against terrorism, called it "the greatest and most savage tragedy in the history of Argentina." We must proceed with care and make sure words do not carry us away.

September 25, 2001
Washington D.C.

see also:

Some Tentative Reflections on the War in Afghanistan
January 14, 2002

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