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Washington's war crimes

From Socialist Review Aotearoa New Zealand
Issue 9 (Summer 2001/02)

When George W Bush announced that the US bombing campaign against Afghanistan had begun, he declared, "We are a peaceful nation." Not exactly. A look at its history shows that the US is the most violent and interventionist nation ever known. For more than a century, the US government has used military force or covert operations - or backed local thugs and dictators - to enforce its interests around the globe. A full list of US interventions would fill whole books.
Here, Anthony Arnove and Alan Maass compile a partial time line of America's imperialist adventures - and the tragic toll they've taken.
"We have not one particle of right to be here," Colonel Ethan Allen Hitchcock wrote of the US expansion into territories that were then part of Mexico - but were coveted by President James Polk and the slaveholders he served. The US incited Mexico, hoping to draw it into a war over disputed territory. The conflict caused massive casualties. When it was over, the US controlled all of New Mexico and California, and more of the territory of Texas.
When an anti-US protest stormed the American foreign ministry building in San Juan del Norte in Nicaragua, the USS Cayne sailed into the port and bombarded the city. This was one of four US interventions in the 1850s. In 1855, a US mercenary named William Walker came to Nicaragua with a band of supporters and declared himself president of the country - with crackpot plans to make Nicaragua a US state where slavery was legal. Robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt organised a private army to force Walker to surrender.
On 15 February 1898, the USS Maine exploded while in the harbor off Havana, Cuba - and that became the pretext for the US war against Spain. The Spanish-American War was justified by US leaders with talk about democracy and human rights. But the US's real goal was to make off with Spain's remaining colonial possessions. With its victory, the US took charge in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam and the Philippines.
Immediately after the war with Spain, the US military went into the Philippines to smash a movement for independence. The war claimed hundreds of thousands of Filipino lives, with US troops committing numerous mass slaughters. "I wish you to kill and burn; the more you kill and burn the better you please me," General "Howling" Jake Smith told his soldiers.
The country of Panama owes its existence to the US government. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt sent two warships to support a revolt - sponsored by US big business - for Panama to secede from Colombia. Five days after Panama gained independence, the US got its reward - a treaty for the building of a canal to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, something of immense commercial and military value. The US maintained military control over a strip of land called the Panama Canal Zone until the end of the 20th century.
US Marines hit the shores of Nicaragua to back a Conservative Party revolt against President Jos Santos Zelaya, whose nationalism threatened US interests. Washington's occupation army left in 1925 - and returned a year later, again to prop up Conservative Party rule. US troops failed to defeat the liberation army of Augusto Csar Sandino. But before withdrawing in 1933, Washington established the National Guard under the leadership of Anastasio Somoza. Somoza ordered the murder of Sandino in 1934, and a few years later took power in a coup against the president. The Somoza family ruled Nicaragua with an iron fist for nearly half a century.
The US sent warships into the waters off Haiti 24 times between 1849 and 1913 - and finally invaded in 1914. During the 20 year occupation, American troops "murdered and destroyed, reinstituted virtual slavery [and] dismantled the constitutional system," wrote Noam Chomsky. At least 15,000 people died as a result. When the US finally withdrew, it left the country in the hands of the brutal National Guard.
The US sent troops as part of an intervention of more than a dozen countries to oppose the spread of the successful workers' revolution in Russia in October 1917. US and allied forces worked with savage reactionaries who hoped to restore the rule of the tsar.
The US entered the Second World War in December 1941 after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbour, something that US leaders had advance warning about. The US delayed its invasion of Northern Europe until 1944 - after the USSR, at enormous cost, had beaten back Germany on the eastern front. The US used saturation bombing against Germany. More than 100,000 people were killed when warplanes bombed Dresden, a city with no military targets. But the US never bombed the rail lines leading to the Nazi death camps. The war against Japan ended with President Harry Truman's barbaric decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. The US Strategic Bombing Survey concluded that "Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped."
Washington has provided military and economic assistance to Israel from its foundation in 1948 and increasingly after the 1967 war. Israel has long been the largest recipient of US aid - today getting more than US$3 billion annually, despite its ongoing illegal occupation of Palestinian land, widespread human rights abuses and its brutal invasions of Lebanon.
Never officially declaring a war, as many as many as two million people died in the "police action" in Korea between the US-backed South and the North backed by the USSR. The fighting "reduce[d] Korea, North and South, to a shambles, in three years of bombing and shelling," Howard Zinn wrote. The Korean War ended in a stalemate, and to this day, the US maintains a huge military presence there.
The CIA organised a coup in Iran to overthrow President Mohammed Mossadegh. Mossadegh's crime was to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and carry out land reform, threatening the profits of the Western oil giants. The US backed the brutal dictatorship of the Shah of Iran, until the Shah was overthrown in the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
President Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala was overthrown in a 1954 coup organised by the CIA. Arbenz had undertaken land reform measures that threatened the United Fruit Company - now known as Chiquita Brands - which ran Guatemala like its private plantation. United Fruit lobbied its friends in the Eisenhower administration for the coup - and helped to carry it out at every level. The coup ushered in decades of military regimes that led to the murder of tens of thousands.
US military involvement in Vietnam - at first covert, later an open war - led to more than two million deaths. The US used carpet bombing, napalm, chemical weapons and psychological warfare to terrorise the civilian population. And Richard Nixon's savage "secret war" in neighboring Laos and Cambodia took as many as two million more lives and created the conditions for the rise of Pol Pot in Cambodia. The US brought all of its military might to bear on Southeast Asia. But the Vietnamese resistance and growing opposition to the war inside the US army and at home led to the US government's first major military defeat.
From the moment that dictator Fulgencio Batista was overthrown by a rebel army led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, the US government declared war on Cuba. In 1961, the CIA helped to coordinate an invasion of the island by right-wing exiles at the Bay of Pigs, which was defeated. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy brought the world closer than it has ever been to nuclear war in a showdown with the USSR over missiles in Cuba. Despite numerous plots, the US never toppled Castro. But the US economic embargo - which continues to this day - strangled the country's economy.
After the Democratic Republic of the Congo achieved independence in 1960, the US helped to engineer the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the country's first prime minister. The US backed Joseph Mobutu (who later renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko). Mobutu took power as a military dictator in 1965 and became one of the world's most notorious tyrants, bleeding the poverty-stricken country dry as he amassed a billion-dollar fortune.
In 1963, the US helped to remove democratically elected Dominican Republic President Juan Bosch in an army coup. Two years later, an invasion force of 22,000 US Marines landed after falling sugar prices led to a popular uprising against the dictatorship. More than 4,000 Dominicans were killed. Even the New York Times admitted at the time that Dominicans were "fighting and dying for social justice and constitutionalism."
With US approval and support, President Sukarno of Indonesia was overthrown in a coup led by General Suharto. The coup was followed by massacres of peasant organisers, labour leaders and others identified as "communists" on lists supplied in part by the CIA. As many as one million Indonesians were killed. The US approved Suharto's invasion and annexation of East Timor in the mid-1970s. One third of East Timor's population was killed during Indonesia's occupation. Washington backed Suharto to the hilt until just before he was toppled in 1998. "He's our kind of guy," a top Clinton administration official said in 1996.
The CIA helped to engineer the overthrow of socialist Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president of Chile. "I don't see why we should let a country go Marxist because its people are irresponsible," then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger explained. The coup against Allende brought to power the dictator Augusto Pinochet, who ruled Chile with an iron fist until 1990. Thousands of Chilean dissidents were murdered and "disappeared" under Pinochet.
The US backed a proxy army in Nicaragua against the Sandinista government that came to power after toppling the Somoza dynasty. The contras were instructed by the CIA to "kill, kidnap, rob and torture," admitted former contra leader Edgar Chamorro. "Many civilians were killed in cold blood. Many others were tortured, mutilated, raped, robbed and otherwise abused." When the US Senate forbade funding for the contra army, the Reagan administration organised an illegal scheme to sell arms to Iran and use the proceeds for its dirty war in Central America. The US government's war reduced Nicaragua to one of the poorest countries in the world.
Claiming that it was a threat to the US, US Marines invaded the tiny island nation of Grenada in Operation Urgent Fury. The invasion overturned Grenada's government and helped to make the country a "haven for offshore banks," as the Wall Street Journal put it.
When the US decided that its long-term friend General Manuel Noriega had outlived his usefulness, George Bush Senior sent 26,000 troops into Panama in December 1989. Thousands of Panamanians were killed before Noriega was seized and brought to Florida to stand trial on drug charges. The US claimed that it brought democracy to Panama. "[B]ut they left all the little Noriegas in place," said Miguel Bernal, a professor of international law at the University of Panama.
In January 1991, the US launched the most intensive bombing campaign in world history against Iraq. The country's dictator Saddam Hussein had been a US ally - until he stepped out of line with the invasion of Kuwait. US warplanes deliberately targeted Iraq's civilian infrastructure, reducing the country to "a pre-industrial state," according to the UN. Strict economic sanctions continued after the Gulf War - and are responsible for the deaths of more than 500,000 children under the age of five over the past decade, according to UNICEF.
Claiming that it was intervening to provide humanitarian assistance during a famine, Bush Senior sent troops to Somalia. US and UN soldiers were responsible for 10,000 Somalians killed or wounded. The intervention complicated relief efforts and encouraged infighting among Somalian factions seeking US favour.
The US fell out with another former friend, Slobodan Milosevic, in its war against Yugoslavia. Bill Clinton claimed that the US was intervening to prevent the "ethnic cleansing" of Albanians in Kosovo. But US intervention only escalated the crisis, and Albanians forced ethnic Serbs to flee from Kosovo. US saturation bombing wreaked environmental havoc. Today, the countryside remains littered with the remains of shells made of depleted uranium.
Find out the facts about the world's cop. Among the resources used to compile this time line are:
Tom Barry and Deb Preusch, The Central America Fact Book (Grove Press)
William Blum, Killing Hope (Common Courage Press)
Noam Chomsky, Rogue States: The Rule of Force in World Affairs (South End Press)
Noam Chomsky, Year 501: The Conquest Continues (South End Press)
Ellen Collier, "Instances of Use of United States Forces Abroad,1798-1993," Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, 7 October, 1993
Zoltan Grossman, "A Century of US Military Interventions," Znet (
Sidney Lens, The Forging of American Empire (Thomas Y. Crowell Co.)
Lance Selfa, "US Imperialism: A Century of Slaughter," International Socialist Review, Spring 1999
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States (HarperCollins)

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