Sunday, July 5, 2009

The United States and the Dictators

I was re-reading about the Indian National Army that co-operated with the Japanese during the Second World War. The one largely raised by Subhas Chandra Bose, the self proclaimed leader of the free India movement. Many of the 40,000 members of the INA were recruited from amongst the 50,000 Indian POW’s from the Malayan and Burmese campaign (most of them appeared to be hoping to escape back to British lines, and several thousands - when they found they couldn’t – asked to be returned to the POW camps). But Bose actually believed that his vision of India entitled him to try and form alliances with Hitler and Tojo (presumably on the theory that the enemy of my enemy is my friend). Later he tried Stalin as well.

It made me wonder again about the sort of people who think that the ends justify the means. Some are so single minded in their pursuit of their goals, that they will blinker themselves to what the real effects of their actions are. (One campaigner for ‘Welch Nationalism’, commenting on the bomb campaign leading up to the 1969 investiture of the Prince of Wales, said “campaigns of violence always damage the society they are supposed to protect”.)

In his pursuit of ‘freedom’ for India (presumably ‘proper’ Hindu India, lets forget the Muslim League, or the Untouchable classes, or anyone else who didn’t count), Bose was willing to ignore the truth about his ‘Allies’. It is not clear whether he actually believed that the Japanese, who had 'raped' Nanking, would be delighted to grant independence to a newly conquered India; whether he knew he was cast in the role of a Quisling; or whether he was so fanatical he just didn’t care that he was playing a dupe.

This sort of thing occurs repeatedly through history, and it is notable that the more pompous people are about their motives, the more they are kidding themselves. Take the United States of America.

In their pursuit of ‘freedom’ for the 13 Colonies (presumably ‘WASP’ America, lets forget Yellow, Red or Black skinned people, or anyone else who didn’t count - like Catholics), American’s were notorious for making claims about ‘freedom’ that are impossible to justify. (Samuel Johnson made the lovely comment “we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the slave drivers of the Negro’s”.) It is not clear whether the collective of pirates, smugglers and slave traders (see another post), who largely made up the founding fathers were serious about freedom being only for ‘people like us’; whether they knew it was only propaganda for the ignorant masses; or whether they were so fanatical they didn’t care that they were spouting hypocrisy.

I do not want to discuss the pro’s and con’s of the American War of Independence at this point (that also comes in another post), but I will point out that American victory was hardly inevitable. Despite the fact that none of the better British generals or admirals were willing to serve in a confrontation that they did not approve of, American military leaders were hardly of the quality to make success much better than even odds.

What made the difference was choosing the right allies. American independence only became a serious possibility when two other European powers put their money and military power into the equation (and even then had more to do with the British public seeing the whole thing in the light of how a later American public would perceive a similar style conflict in a place called Vietnam). Those two powers were Spain and France.

Consider the irony of the American ‘Republicans’ requiring for their success that support of Louis XVI of France – that great pillar of Absolute Monarchy – and Charles III of Imperial Spain – that great exponent of Enlightened Absolutism. (Hitler and Tojo would have been so proud.) Consider that only a few years earlier the Americans had pretty much coerced Britain into fighting the Seven Years War against these two powers – again largely to further their own political and economic power. (And that one of the excuses for the War of Independence was refusing to pay taxes designed to help pay for that war) It is hard to imagine a more cynical example of the end justifying the means.

The next attempt at American expression of outrage in the pursuit of freedom (this time at least theoretically of sailors of confused citizenship), was called the War of 1812. Again the American’s had no real hope of achieving anything unless their glorious ally could do most of the work, but this time they picked an even better proponent of ‘freedom’, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. (Who had recently conquered most of Europe, and instilled himself, or his relatives, as monarchs of many countries.)

Unfortunately for the Americans, their great ally was soon in exile in Elba, and they were left to face Britain alone again. Despite the fact that the British were no more motivated about the America’s than previously, there is probably little doubt that they could have used their newly beefed up military machine to re-conquor the country had anyone been interested. They weren’t. (Many British politicians at the time discussed the conflict in terms similar to later American discussions of the Vietnam War. The British public had been at war for 20 years and were definitely not interested in opening another front. The few half hearted efforts to swat the new annoyance were not particularly serious by the standards of the victorious Napoleonic war machine Britain had developed.) The British limited themselves to wiping out the US marine fleet and trade, and a few punitive expeditions to burn many of the US coastal cities – such as Washington DC.

If you want a really entertaining half hour, follow back the various postings about the War of 1812 on Wikipedia to see what various American’s have claimed about this war. Some American's say they lost, but admit they can't say this in Wikipedia; most like to act as if it was a draw; and some think they won! Many like to think that the War of 1812 was nothing to do with the Napoleonic Wars. You have to laugh… if you took it seriously you would even more worried about American’s understanding of how the world works.

As far as I can see from the various arguments, the claims for victory are based on capturing some Spanish territory (oh the irony), and finishing the chances of the American Indians forming a safe nation. (Which was probably the 'war aim' that the British failed to achieve... the British had being trying to protect the Indian treaties they had signed since 1776.) The claims for a draw are based on the argument that the British didn't want the war; that they didn't take it very seriously; and that some of their erratic punitive expeditions went other places if given a serious fight anywhere. The claims for losing are based on the fact that the US merchant marine was wiped out, and the last few naval vessels laid up in blockaded ports; that trade had collapsed - except for those states doing deals to still trade with the British; the economy was in chaos; the British were burning coastal cities at will, and sometimes - apparently with little organised plan - occupying bits of US territory here and there; and that some states were discussing seceding from the union. Even ignoring whether the Americans were serious about trying to conquor Canada - a weird debate in it's own right considering what the American President said a the time ('we will march in and be welcomed') - it is hard to see any problem with the everybody else in the world dismissing the whole exercise as a failed attempt by the Americans to take advantage of the situation. A footnote of the Napoleonic Wars.

The whole thing is a bit silly really.

The key thing to note here, is that the United States was founded with the help of dictators. The US then contributed to the war efforts of other dictators, for little better reason than ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. (Fortunately for them their efforts failed, and British style parliamentary democracy became the international standard despite their best efforts.)
Like Subhas Chandra Bose, or indeed those who called themselves Irish Republicans during the Great War: the early American politicians never stopped to consider the probable effects of their ‘allies’ actually succeeding over their ‘enemies’. They adopted the most short sighted and insular viewpoint imaginable, ignored the reality of their allies real goals completely, and fought as hard as they could on the side of the dictators. (As they have done many times since, particularly during the Cold War - but that too is another post.)

Hurray for principles!


  1. So, what did the American President say at the time?

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