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'This Guy is a Modern-Day Hitler'

For more than 40 years, comparing an administration's enemies to Hitler has been a reliable way to convince a pliant media and unquestioning public to go to war.
 
 
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Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Norman Solomon's new book, War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death, just published by John Wiley & Sons .

Evil that warrants the large-scale killing of war needs a face. But that face cannot belong to some amorphous mass of an enemy population; in fact, it's a ritual for the president to offer assurances that civilians who may be caught in the crossfire are not among the Pentagon's targets. The bull's-eye must be painted on someone who links the nascent war to an indisputably justified one of the past.

For this purpose, Hitler's name has been pressed into service, intermittently, for decades. Pointed mentions of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust open floodgates of emotion, connecting a present-day foe with a regime that slaughtered millions of people near the fulcrum of the twentieth century. What helps to do the trick is the message that while horrors of the past cannot be changed, they can be prevented in the near future.

At a press conference on July 28, 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke about the need to escalate the Vietnam War, he used a historical analogy. "We did not choose to be the guardians at the gate, but there is no one else," he said. "Nor would surrender in Vietnam bring peace, because we learned from Hitler at Munich that success only feeds the appetite of aggression. The battle would be renewed in one country and then another country, bringing with it perhaps even larger and crueler conflict, as we have learned from the lessons of history." And Johnson declared: "We just cannot now dishonor our word."

A beauty of the Munich analogy, as several of LBJ's successors found, was that it could seem irrefutable on its own terms. The comparison might be very useful for likening a certain government to a Hitlerian menace.

Since the Vietnam era, various leaders -- most famously Manuel Noriega, Slobodan Milosevic, and Saddam Hussein -- have been promoted as sufficiently evil to necessitate U.S. military action. Singling out a particular villain (while winking at, or even cooperating with, a range of other tyrants) is vital to laying the rhetorical groundwork for war. To demonize -- and that's just about a prerequisite for war -- requires picking and choosing. With dozens of governments engaging in torture and political repression every day, sometimes accompanied by systematic military atrocities, targeting a specific regime is a matter of White House policy priorities.

During the 1980s those priorities involved so much hostility toward the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua that the momentum of Washington's rhetoric carried it to absurd comparisons with the Third Reich. At a World Affairs Council session in Boston on February 15, 1984, Secretary of State George Shultz said: "I've had good friends who experienced Germany in the 1930s go there and come back and say, 'I've visited many communist countries, but Nicaragua doesn't feel like that. It feels like Nazi Germany.'"

Two weeks later, Boston University president John Silber, a member of the Bipartisan Commission on Central America appointed by President Ronald Reagan, likened Nicaragua's "overt violence" to Nazi Germany, without a mention that the U.S. government was subsidizing most of the violence in Nicaragua with aid to the Contra guerrilla army.

Iraq I: Demonizing an Ally

When Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, abruptly soured the cordial relations between Washington and Baghdad, the White House suddenly propagated analogies between the Baathist and Nazi regimes. "A half century ago, our nation and the world paid dearly for appeasing an aggressor who should, and could, have been stopped," President George H. W. Bush said. "We are not going to make the same mistake again."

Some commentators warned against the facile comparison. Syndicated columnist William Pfaff, based in Paris, wrote in mid-August that "Saddam Hussein is not Hitler, and to describe him as Hitler feeds hysteria and confusion." But for war planners in Washington, some hysteria and confusion were already proving to be quite helpful. Polls showed three-quarters of the American public in support of the large U.S. military deployment already under way to the Middle East. And, as a news story noted when September began, "Support for President Bush climbed from 58 percent to 76 percent in the three weeks after Iraq seized the small oil-rich country of Kuwait."

The Saddam-as-Hitler motif rapidly became a familiar pattern on the media wallpaper. "When he wasn't going after Congress, President Bush had a few choice words for Saddam Hussein," CBS newsman Charles Osgood intoned. "In a speech yesterday, Mr. Bush characterized the Iraqi leader's behavior as Hitler revisited."

During the fall 1990 congressional campaign, the president described Hussein as "a little Hitler." Meanwhile, the same analogy came from retired general William Westmoreland, former commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, who spoke up as a guest on ABC's Nightline program: "You know, here in the 1990s, Saddam Hussein is the Hitler of the Middle East. And if we're going to give him a free rein and not stand up to him and not have the troops available to resist him, the Middle East is going to be in turmoil."

All in all, the LexisNexis media database shows that major American news outlets printed and aired comparisons between Saddam and Hitler on average several times each day during the 5 1⁄2 months that led up to the Gulf War in mid-January 1991. But Saddam Hussein had long been a horrendous dictator: before, during, and after the Iran-Iraq war, which spanned most of the 1980s. Washington tilted toward Baghdad with tangible assistance in that conflict. Year after year, Saddam remained on good terms with the U.S. government, while negative press notices were sparse in the United States.

When the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait drastically changed Washington's view of Hussein, the mainstream American media had an epiphany about his unnerving resemblance to Hitler. Three years after the New Republic called for boosting U.S. military aid to Saddam in 1987, the influential magazine altered a cover photo of the Iraqi dictator to make his mustache look more like Hitler's.

Overnight, the doors in Washington had slammed shut for Saddam. As the Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory put it: "Iraq enjoyed special trade status up to the moment it invaded Kuwait and Saddam Hussein began to remind Bush of Hitler."

Mixed Messages in the Balkans

Some congressional Republicans and certain normally hawkish pundits voiced opposition to the spring 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia, perhaps in part because it was being spearheaded by a loathed Democrat in the White House. But they could do little to impede the kind of war momentum that they were accustomed to enhancing and applauding. When the air war began, the usual media forms of bombing euphoria kicked in, along with further extensive publicity about the suffering of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Clinton administration officials and many journalists had cranked up appreciable spin machinery over the winter. Slobodan Milosevic was "the closest thing to Hitler Europe has confronted in the last half-century," wrote liberal Boston Globe columnist David Nyhan three weeks into 1999. Nyhan was among many pundits drawn to the nobility of the upcoming war. (Typically, he wrote that the Yugoslav president "has taken the audacious steps of countenancing the massacre of Albanian civilians in Kosovo, refusing access to the U.N.'s war crimes prosecutor, and has expelled an American diplomat who blamed the massacre on Serb authorities.")

Media records from the time reveal how well top Clinton administration officials and like-minded advocates stayed on message about similarities between Hitler and Milosevic. Hundreds of times, major U.S. media pieces addressed the matter, often in the form of news stories that reported such comparisons by officials without offering a critical counterview. Some commentators disputed the analogy, but the widespread media likening of Milosevic's tyranny to Hitler's seemed to burnish the evil of the Serbian president into the public mind. Overlaid on such narratives was a story line that presented war as an extraordinarily selfless option for NATO, with the United States leading the way.

The decade's huge quantities of U.S. media coverage about the Balkans included scant mention of what happened in August 1995 when the Croatian government -- with a bright green light from the White House -- sent in troops to inflict grisly "ethnic cleansing" on large numbers of Serbs living in the Krajina region. The president of Croatia, Franjo Tudjman, ordered the assault. Dubbed Operation Storm, it quickly drove at least 150,000 Serbian people from their homes in the Krajina.

Meanwhile, the American news media -- taking a cue from the Oval Office -- just shrugged. "The entire offensive was undertaken by the authorities in Zagreb with the support of the United States government," BBC correspondent Misha Glenny wrote. "President Clinton himself welcomed Operation Storm, suggesting that it may open the way to a solution of the Yugoslav conflict. The rest of the international community was visibly shocked by America's encouragement of Croatia."

But the U.S. news media weren't shocked. After all, the White House said the slaughter and expulsion of Serbs from the Krajina was okay; nothing to be alarmed about; no big deal. At the time Carl Bildt, who was a mediator for the European Union and a former Swedish prime minister, made a statement that years later was chilling to read: "If we accept that it is all right for Tudjman to cleanse Croatia of its Serbs, then how on earth can we object if [Boris] Yeltsin cleanses Chechnya or if one day Milosevic sends his army to clean out the Albanians from Kosovo?"

In early 1999 the White House scriptwriters cast Milosevic as the Führer and Serbs as Brown Shirts, period. The day before he ordered the start of the bombing, President Clinton gave a speech likening Slobodan to Adolf and drawing the kind of analogy that U.S. presidents bent on war have been unable to resist in modern times: "And so I want to talk to you about Kosovo today but just remember this -- it's about our values. What if someone had listened to Winston Churchill and stood up to Adolf Hitler earlier?" The Washington Post reported that "the president compared Milosevic explicitly to Hitler."

Hours into the missile strikes, Clinton "included such language as 'dictator' and 'genocide in the heart of Europe' to describe the Serbian nationalist's deeds." As the Post observed, "Clinton and his senior advisers harked repeatedly back to images of World War II and Nazism to give moral weight to the bombing." The heavy political freight ran parallel with profuse media accolades about allied bombing that would prevent a smaller version of the Holocaust from playing out.

When the bombing of Yugoslavia got under way, the Clinton administration initially played catch-up to attain the usual favorable wartime media treatment; big boosts came from a blitz of TV appearances by the secretaries of state and defense in the hours and days after the bombing began. Marlin Fitzwater, who had spoken for the White House during the Gulf War eight years earlier, drew on his spin-cycle expertise and adjudged the new PR moves to be "effective in the short term." Yet he found fault with the agenda-building for the latest war.

"The problem is they didn't start the communications until the bombs started falling," Fitzwater remarked, sounding a bit like a retired pro doing color commentary about the performances of the players on the field. "That's not enough time to convince the nation of a course of action. But it's helpful because it convinces people to give the government the benefit of the doubt."

Looking back with pride, the loquacious Fitzwater recalled a slick public-relations campaign he'd helped to shape. He reminisced that a few days before the Gulf War started, ABC did a kitchen-table interview with some people in Kansas -- and "every answer at that table reflected one of the reasons we had given for going in." Among the precepts Fitzwater mentioned was the idea that war is "easier for people to understand if there's a face to the enemy." In chronological order, he ticked off the names of "Hitler, Ho Chi Minh, Saddam Hussein, Milosevic."

From the vantage point of powerful offices near the banks of the Potomac, a faraway "local conflict" over "self-determination" was apt to seem like an abstraction. Another Hitler, in contrast, was a hefty concept, sellable in TV moments.

While the bombing continued in the early spring, so did the Milosevic-Hitler comparisons. The administration in Washington squandered no opportunity to lock onto Milosevic as the new incontrovertible enemy and pull the polemical trigger. Only a couple of months earlier, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had described Milosevic as a leader who "wants to, at some stage, re-enter the international community."

But as April 1999 began, the Associated Press noted the extreme image makeover: "Now she portrays him as 'cruel and evil,' and caring of nothing except staying in power." And now the verbal targeting was carefully personalized: "Where once she criticized 'the Serbs,' 'them,' or 'Belgrade authorities' for intransigence, she and other senior officials speak as if the whole conflict were about NATO vs. Milosevic. Vice President Al Gore called him 'one of these junior league Hitler types' even as officials have stopped just short of calling Milosevic's actions 'genocide.'"

Analysis in the mainstream U.S. press included some sober reflections. Washington Post staffer Michael Dobbs, who had recently reported from the Balkans, wrote:

"While the Milosevic-as-Hitler analogy favored by Clinton and Albright makes for good rhetoric, it makes a mockery of history. It is certainly true that Milosevic's policies (which were matched by other nationalist leaders, notably Croatia's Franjo Tudjman) helped destroy the former Yugoslavia. And it's also true that tens of thousands of people have been killed as a result of the wars unleashed by Milosevic in Croatia, Bosnia and now Kosovo. At the same time, however, any comparison between the rump, Serb-led Yugoslavia and Nazi Germany is laughable. Yugoslavia is so weak militarily and economically that it could never pose a serious threat to its neighbors except, as in the present case, as a source of refugees and political instability. There is all the difference in the world between an expansionist totalitarian power like Hitler's Germany and a bankrupt police state like Milosevic's Yugoslavia."

Yet, by the beginning of summer, the American media's thematic last word on Milosevic and the necessity of the seventy-eight-day bombing campaign was much closer to this pronouncement in a New York Daily News editorial: "With his blessing, Serb soldiers have drenched Kosovo with the blood of tens of thousands of Albanians and sent perhaps a million more fleeing in panic. Not since Hitler and Stalin has Europe witnessed such massive barbarism."

Iraq II: The Comparison Fits Like an Old Shoe

When the second Bush administration returned Saddam Hussein to the center stage of U.S. foreign policy, it was time to reprise countless stories about his evilness, while again eliding the cozy relationship that Hussein had long enjoyed with Washington. (When I accompanied former U.N. assistant secretary-general Denis Halliday to a private meeting in Baghdad with Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz in late January 2003, Aziz glanced at the latest Time magazine, which Halliday had just given to him. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was on the cover. "Rumsfeld has become quite a warmonger," Aziz said. "He did not seem so when he came and visited us in the 1980s.") The Iraqi dictator had not ordered an attack on another country since 1990, and his military capabilities had obviously diminished -- but comparing him to Hitler fit like an old shoe.

One of many politicians eager to keep putting it on was "moderate Republican" Christopher Shays, who repeatedly invoked memories of the Third Reich to justify an invasion of Iraq. Days before Congress passed the war resolution in October 2002, Shays went on MSNBC and used the Hitler analogy as part of a slick repertoire about Saddam.

"The burden of proof rests on those to prove that he hasn't continued his programs of mass destruction," Shays said. "That's where the burden of proof is. I've been in no classified briefing that said he has stopped his program. In every instance, he's moving ahead with it. And it's not one bomb. It's many. And we're talking about -- the only thing he's basically waiting for and trying to acquire is the enriched uranium or plutonium, the nuclear-grade material to make a bomb. It is about the size of a softball. You can touch it and it's not detectable. We will not allow Saddam Hussein to have nuclear weapons."

A minute later, Shays executed another smooth shuffle: "We're not talking about a criminal act that we have to prove in court. We're talking about the logic of events. Someone said to me, 'Prove that he will use his nuclear weapons.' To me, that's like saying, 'Prove Hitler's Germany was going to go into Poland.' We knew he went into Czechoslovakia. We knew he went into Austria. We knew he was building up his armament. We knew what he was about. We could never have proved he was going into Poland." An all-purpose formulation: When nothing need be proven, then no war need be justified, ahead of time or later on.

After more than two decades of representing a San Francisco area district in Congress, Tom Lantos was the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee by the time an invasion of Iraq was on the near horizon. He was not to be outdone at conflating Baathist Iraq with the Third Reich, as though Saddam's forces were somehow comparable to Germany's Wehrmacht. In early October 2002, Lantos pulled out all the stops on Capitol Hill as he proclaimed: "Had Hitler's regime been taken out in a timely fashion, the 51 million innocent people who lost their lives during the Second World War would have been able to finish their normal life cycles. Mr. Chairman, if we appease Saddam Hussein, we will stand humiliated before both humanity and history."

Although spared such humiliation, avid supporters of the Iraq invasion were soon struggling to respond to a plethora of belated revelations and difficulties with the occupation. At that point, references to Hitler and other historic mass murderers still came in very handy. After a brief stint as the head of the U.S. government's "civilian operations" in Iraq during early days of the occupation, Jay Garner was ready when challenged while appearing before a House subcommittee in Washington.

"In response to criticisms about the administration's handling of the Iraq war, Garner compared Saddam to Adolf Hitler and Cambodian leader Pol Pot," reported United Press International. "He related his own experience seeing children's bodies being pulled from the mass graves of Saddam's 'killing fields.' This sort of response has become central to the Bush administration's messages in reply to criticism following the invasion of Iraq and still unanswered questions about the state of Saddam's alleged weapons programs."

During the same week as Jay Garner's testimony about bodies being exhumed from mass graves of Saddam's "killing fields," subscribers to the New York Review of Books were considering a new essay by Norman Mailer that served as a de facto retort.

Acknowledging that "the most painful single ingredient at the moment is, of course, the discovery of the graves," Mailer did not stop there. He went on:

"We have relieved the world of a monster who killed untold numbers, mega-numbers, of victims. Nowhere is any emphasis put upon the fact that many of the bodies were of the Shiites of southern Iraq who have been decimated repeatedly in the last 12 years for daring to rebel against Saddam in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War. Of course, we were the ones who encouraged them to revolt in the first place, and then failed to help them. Why? There may have been an ongoing argument in the first Bush administration which was finally won by those who believed that a Shiite victory over Saddam could result in a host of Iraqi imams who might make common cause with the Iranian ayatollahs, Shiites joining with Shiites! Today, from the point of view of the remaining Iraqi Shiites, it would be hard for us to prove to them that they were not the victims of a double cross. So they may look upon the graves that we congratulate ourselves for having liberated as sepulchral voices calling out from their tombs -- asking us to take a share of the blame. Which, of course, we will not."

Digging deeper into history, Mailer continued: "Yes, our guilt for a great part of those bodies remains a large subtext and Saddam was creating mass graves all through the 1970s and 1980s. He killed Communists en masse in the 1970s, which didn't bother us a bit. Then he slaughtered tens of thousands of Iraqis during the war with Iran -- a time when we supported him. A horde of those newly discovered graves go back to that period. Of course, real killers never look back."

Norman Solomon’s latest book, “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death,” is available from Wiley.