How Fake News Could Lead to Real WarRoundup
tags: foreign policy, military history, diplomatic history, international affairs
Ambassador Daniel Benjamin is director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College and served as coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department 2009-2012.
Steven Simon is visiting professor of history at Amherst College. He served as the National Security Council senior director for counterterrorism and for the Middle East and North Africa, respectively, in the Clinton and Obama administrations.
Misinformation in geopolitics could lead not only to the continued weakening of our institutions but also to combat deaths. Sure, fake news has been a feature of international relations for a long time, but it’s different now: Advancing technology that can fabricate convincing images and videos combined with the chronic, exuberant dishonesty of the commander in chief and his minions have meant that no one can feel confident in assessing life-or-death choices in foreign policy crisis. For a democracy—one with global interests—this is a disaster.
The history of falsified or manufactured pretexts for war is a long one—and even implicates our heroes. Paul Revere, in his famous engraving of the 1770 Boston Massacre, depicted an organized line of British soldiers firing point blank into a crowd of Bostonians, portraying the scene as more of a mass execution than the confused and inadvertent shooting it actually was. In the 1840s, the not-so-heroic Polk administration wanted to expand slave-holding territory and sought to expand the borders of the United States in the southwest at Mexico’s expense. Mobilizing an army for this purpose proved difficult, despite lavish incentives for recruits. President James K. Polk reckoned he would have to whip up war fever by engineering a Mexican attack, so he had General Zachary Taylor—who would later ride his war record to the White House—deploy a force into territory claimed by both the U.S. and Mexico between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande, effectively daring the Mexicans to attack the Americans. The Mexicans took the bait, starting a war that ended up costing them their foothold in what is today the United States. Skeptical citizens pushed back against such gambits. A first-term congressman named Abraham Lincoln introduced a series of resolutions demanding Polk declare whether the “particular spot of soil on which the blood of our citizens was so shed” was American. His fervent efforts earned him the nickname “Spotty Lincoln,” which remained with him until he was elected president.
But the deception didn’t stop with Polk. In 1898, the McKinley administration exploited the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor to justify war with Spain and America’s first imperial thrust. The Cubans had been seeking independence from Spain since 1895; the USS Maine had been sent to Cuba to underscore Washington’s interest in the conflict and safeguard American lives and property. After an explosion sent the ship to the bottom of the harbor along with 260 sailors, a naval commission of inquiry determined that a Spanish mine was to blame; but two of the Navy’s own leading experts, who thought the fatal detonation was due to an accidental internal explosion, were not consulted. Today, experts agree that the explosion was accidental and not due to a mine. President William McKinley, to be fair, had been working to restrain Spanish repression in Cuba—Madrid had established reconcentradocamps where ordinary Cubans were penned up to prevent collaboration with Cuban rebels—and was making diplomatic progress. But given the commercial pressure to protect U.S. business interests in Cuba and war fever ignited by the yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst's newspapers, the Navy’s erroneous determination that the USS Maine was destroyed by a Spanish mine made war all but inevitable.
The modern history of the fraudulent casus belli begins in 1964, on the cusp of the Johnson administration’s initial escalation of the Vietnam War. During a tense period off the North Vietnamese coast, North Vietnamese patrol boats in the Gulf of Tonkin attacked the USS Maddox, a destroyer quietly gathering intelligence from international waters. The North Vietnamese mistakenly believed the Maddox was there to support South Vietnamese commandos raiding nearby island installations. Two days later, amid a storm, the crews of the Maddox and another destroyer, the USS Turner Joy, thought they were under attack, mistaking the sound of their own propellers for incoming torpedoes and charging patrol boats amid the crashing waves and high winds.
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