David N. Gibbs: How Elites Use Pretexts to Manufacture Public Support for War

Roundup: Historians' Take

This article will analyze the use of pretexts in US foreign policy. The basic argument is that American foreign policy since 1945 has followed a distinct pattern, wherein policy e´lites have sought to implement programs of external expansion, which in turn have been frustrated by public skepticism. In order to persuade the public on the need for assertive action overseas—often accompanied by increases in the military budget—e´lites have sought out various pretexts to justify these actions. This article will explore the use of pretexts in three detailed case studies: North Korea’s invasion of South Korea in 1950; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan during 1979–1980; and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

I will argue that US foreign policy has often engaged in aggressive and offensive activities, which are inherently difficult to justify in public debate. In addition, these offensive actions have asymmetrically benefited certain vested interests, notably the military-industrial complex, and this too has been difficult to justify. The function of pretexts has been to obscure these awkward features; hence the need to demonstrate that US policy is reacting to provocations, threats to the national security, and the like. Undergirding this analysis is the assumption that the American public is often reluctant to countenance military action abroad. It is often thought that the American public has been consistently nationalistic and supportive of military force. Such views obscure a considerable complexity. In fact, public opinion polls have shown that Americans are typically reluctant to use military force overseas, at least initially. Proposals for military action have often encountered what Edward Tufte termed “uninformed skepticism and informed hostility.”3 This popular skepticism can be traced to the very beginnings of the Cold War when, it should not be forgotten, Harry S. Truman was encouraged to “scare hell out of the American people,” since this was felt to be the only way to elicit their support for conflict with the Soviets.4

In the face of such public opposition, pretexts are often used. When referring to pretexts, I do so in the ordinary English language sense that a pretext is “an appearance assumed in order to cloak the real intention or state of affairs.”5 The basic process is simple: a dramatic event will be contrived to give the (mistaken) impression that a foreign power has threatened vital national interests. In other cases, foreign policy e´lites will simply wait for some event to occur, and will seize upon the event to justify actions that had, in any case, already been decided upon. The key point is that the policy decision occurs first, and is then followed by the “provocation” that is used to legitimate the policy. I place my work within the tradition of Herman and Chomsky, who emphasize the importance that deception and propaganda play even in formally democratic countries. 6 Though Herman and Chomsky are generally considered radical critics of US policy, many of their basic points are accepted by the mainstream realist theory of international relations, which also seems to recognize a “need” for e´lite manipulation of public opinion. Hans Morgenthau strongly implies such manipulation when he writes: “the government must realize that it is not the slave to public opinion; that public opinion is not a static thing to be discovered…it is a dynamic, ever changing entity to be continuously created and recreated by informed and responsible leadership; that it is the historic mission of the government to assert that leadership.”7 One of the easiest ways for “responsible leadership” to create and recreate public opinion is through the use of pretexts.

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Denise Ann Coffey - 10/7/2005

I liked this very much.