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Nyden: War-mongering presidents have long counted on support from leading newspapers

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Since World War II, editorials in major American newspapers have routinely supported and promoted military interventions whenever White House leaders began to express an interest in initiating those interventions.

Presidents, both Republican and Democratic, have consistently asserted their "executive power," paying little attention to the fact that the Constitution requires the White House to seek, and obtain, approval from Congress before launching any military venture.

In his new book, "The Press March to War: Newspapers Set the Stage for Military Intervention in Post-World War II America," Steve Hallock makes this point, focusing on editorials published by 12 leading newspapers across the country.

Now the director of the School of Communication at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, Hallock earned a PhD in journalism at Ohio University in 2005, after working for newspapers for nearly 30 years.

Hallock's book analyzes decades of editorials from 12 newspapers: "The Atlanta Constitution," "Chicago Daily Tribune," "Denver Post," "Detroit News." "Houston Chronicle," "Los Angeles Times," "New York Times," "Seattle Times," "St. Louis Post-Dispatch," "USA Today," "Washington Post" and "Wall Street Journal."

The Korean War

Back in 1950, Congress refused to challenge Truman's decision to send troops to Korea. Most newspapers raised few questions.

But the "Chicago Daily Tribune" wrote, "While the president professes concern for tyranny abroad, he has shown no respect for Constitutional limitations at home. He has committed the United States to a war."

The paper called Truman's actions a "lawless defiance of the Constitution and laws that restrict the power of office."

The "Daily Tribune" was the only major paper to oppose Truman.

For more than 60 years, most editorials in most major U.S. newspapers backed impending interventions in countries including: Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

Editorials, however, typically grew more critical after many of these interventions failed to work as well as our political leaders predicted.

Beginning with Korea, Hallock writes, "the press supported military undertakings before they began or at their inception, with the press then taking on a stronger watchdog, or critical, role after the battle was well under way. This would continue in future foreign military operations."

But by abandoning their watchdog roles, newspaper editors and many reporters became accomplices of presidents and political leaders. They were often motivated, Hallock argues, to support government officials they knew and relied upon as sources for their stories.

Media analyst W. Lance Bennett commented, "Leaders have usurped enormous amounts of political power and reduced popular control over the political system by using the media to generate support, compliance and just plain confusion among the public."

Vietnam and Later Wars

Hallock discusses the failure of editorials to oppose a wide variety of questionable decisions leading to the Vietnam War, such as Congress passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7, 1964, which enabled the Lyndon B. Johnson administration to escalate that war.

The supposed attacks on American naval vessels five days earlier were fabricated events. Yet, at the time, the press failed to challenge official accounts of what happened.

By the spring of 1964, military leaders had already developed a scenario to attack North Vietnam. But Johnson was afraid public opinion would not back escalating the war. That changed with the Gulf of Tonkin.

Focusing on editorials, "The Press March to War" rarely quotes news articles by reporters.

"Reporting Vietnam," released in 1998 by The Library of America Press, includes scores of articles published in newspapers between 1959 and 1975 by reporters like Homer Bigart, Neil Sheehan David Halberstam and Seymour M. Hersh.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan's invasion of the small island nation of Grenada was the first military action after World War II that the press questioned from the outset.

The "Reagan Doctrine," Hallock writes, "was the natural outgrowth of the president's unabashed and activist anti-communist policies, primarily in South America."

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 changed things dramatically, affording "an opportunity for the United States to take on the role of exclusive superpower."

The Soviet collapse also required anti-communism to be replaced by new ideologies focusing on countering terrorism, despotism and extremist Muslim groups.

With "strong backing" from the American press, top government leaders redefined and expanded the nation's military role, taking a more proactive role in world affairs.

President Bill Clinton, Hallock writes, defined his own "doctrine" when he said, "When our values are at stake, and when we can make a difference, we must be prepared to do so."

Clinton intervened in disputes in the Balkans and bombed Serbia.

Iraq and Libya

Perhaps the strongest example of the change came as George W. Bush made plans to invade Iraq.

"Unbeknownst to the press at the time, the Bush administration had contingency plans in place for war with Iraq before the terrorist attack on the United States," Hallock writes.

The Fund for Independence in Journalism found "at least 935 false statements in the two years following September 11, 2001, about the national security threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq.... The statements were part of an orchestrated campaign that effectively galvanized public opinion and, in the process, led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses."

Individuals like Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice played major roles in warning the American public about "weapons of mass destruction," weapons that never existed.

An interesting point Hallock could have made, but did not, is how some top political leaders dramatically changed their minds on war policies later in their lives, such as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy. Both McNamara and Bundy served under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson during the Vietnam War.

Hallock closes his study discussing the recent intervention in Libya under President Barack Obama.

"The Libyan intervention represented the full blossoming of a seed planted long ago in the Monroe Doctrine and then sown worldwide in an escalating series of post-World War II foreign policy doctrines and policies."

Those policies, Hallock argues, "not only justified an ever-expanding U.S. role abroad but that also represented a steadily expanding claim of executive power to make war independent of Congressional oversight."

Military engagement in Libya began without even a Congressional resolution, Hallock points out.

Since World War II, our presidents have seized "an imperial war-making power that was not intended by the authors of the Constitution."

Unless these policies are challenged more vigorously, Hallock warns, our future will be one where the American empire continues to pursue its "hegemonic mission" around the globe.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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