Noam Chomsky On War Crimes And Presidents

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[Beating Dead Horses]
With all the talk of war crimes and President Bush, it's worth bringing up a speech given by Noam Chomsky 18 years ago, about the implications if there was a Neuremburg-style war crimes tribunal and how it would treat American presidents of our lifetimes.

If the Nuremberg Laws were Applied...
Noam Chomsky
Delivered around 1990
If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged. By violation of the Nuremberg laws I mean the same kind of crimes for which people were hanged in Nuremberg. And Nuremberg means Nuremberg and Tokyo. So first of all you've got to think back as to what people were hanged for at Nuremberg and Tokyo. And once you think back, the question doesn't even require a moment's waste of time. For example, one general at the Tokyo trials, which were the worst, General Yamashita, was hanged on the grounds that troops in the Philippines, which were technically under his command (though it was so late in the war that he had no contact with them -- it was the very end of the war and there were some troops running around the Philippines who he had no contact with), had carried out atrocities, so he was hanged. Well, try that one out and you've already wiped out everybody.

But getting closer to the sort of core of the Nuremberg-Tokyo tribunals, in Truman's case at the Tokyo tribunal, there was one authentic, independent Asian justice, an Indian, who was also the one person in the court who had any background in international law [Radhabinod Pal], and he dissented from the whole judgment, dissented from the whole thing. He wrote a very interesting and important dissent, seven hundred pages -- you can find it in the Harvard Law Library, that's where I found it, maybe somewhere else, and it's interesting reading. He goes through the trial record and shows, I think pretty convincingly, it was pretty farcical. He ends up by saying something like this: if there is any crime in the Pacific theater that compares with the crimes of the Nazis, for which they're being hanged at Nuremberg, it was the dropping of the two atom bombs. And he says nothing of that sort can be attributed to the present accused. Well, that's a plausible argument, I think, if you look at the background. Truman proceeded to organize a major counter-insurgency campaign in Greece which killed off about one hundred and sixty thousand people, sixty thousand refugees, another sixty thousand or so people tortured, political system dismantled, right-wing regime. American corporations came in and took it over. I think that's a crime under Nuremberg.

Well, what about Eisenhower? You could argue over whether his overthrow of the government of Guatemala was a crime. There was a CIA-backed army, which went in under U.S. threats and bombing and so on to undermine that capitalist democracy. I think that's a crime. The invasion of Lebanon in 1958, I don't know, you could argue. A lot of people were killed. The overthrow of the government of Iran is another one -- through a CIA-backed coup. But Guatemala suffices for Eisenhower and there's plenty more.

Kennedy is easy. The invasion of Cuba was outright aggression. Eisenhower planned it, incidentally, so he was involved in a conspiracy to invade another country, which we can add to his score. After the invasion of Cuba, Kennedy launched a huge terrorist campaign against Cuba, which was very serious. No joke. Bombardment of industrial installations with killing of plenty of people, bombing hotels, sinking fishing boats, sabotage. Later, under Nixon, it even went as far as poisoning livestock and so on. Big affair. And then came Vietnam; he invaded Vietnam. He invaded South Vietnam in 1962. He sent the U.S. Air Force to start bombing. Okay. We took care of Kennedy.

Johnson is trivial. The Indochina war alone, forget the invasion of the Dominican Republic, was a major war crime.

Nixon the same. Nixon invaded Cambodia. The Nixon-Kissinger bombing of Cambodia in the early '70's was not all that different from the Khmer Rouge atrocities, in scale somewhat less, but not much less. Same was true in Laos. I could go on case after case with them, that's easy.

Ford was only there for a very short time so he didn't have time for a lot of crimes, but he managed one major one. He supported the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, which was near genocidal. I mean, it makes Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait look like a tea party. That was supported decisively by the United States, both the diplmatic and the necessary military support came primarily from the United States. This was picked up under Carter.

Carter was the least violent of American presidents but he did things which I think would certainly fall under Nuremberg provisions. As the Indonesian atrocities increased to a level of really near-genocide, the U.S. aid under Carter increased. It reached a peak in 1978 as the atrocities peaked. So we took care of Carter, even forgetting other things.

Reagan. It's not a question. I mean, the stuff in Central America alone suffices. Support for the Israeli invasion of Lebanon also makes Saddam Hussein look pretty mild in terms of casualties and destruction. That suffices.

Bush. Well, need we talk on? In fact, in the Reagan period there's even an International Court of Justice decision on what they call the "unlawful use of force" for which Reagan and Bush were condemned. I mean, you could argue about some of these people, but I think you could make a pretty strong case if you look at the Nuremberg decisions, Nuremberg and Tokyo, and you ask what people were condemned for. I think American presidents are well within the range.

Also, bear in mind, people ought to be pretty critical about the Nuremberg principles. I don't mean to suggest they're some kind of model of probity or anything. For one thing, they were ex post facto. These were determined to be crimes by the victors after they had won. Now, that already raises questions. In the case of the American presidents, they weren't ex post facto. Furthermore, you have to ask yourself what was called a "war crime"? How did they decide what was a war crime at Nuremberg and Tokyo? And the answer is pretty simple. and not very pleasant. There was a criterion. Kind of like an operational criterion. If the enemy had done it and couldn't show that we had done it, then it was a war crime. So like bombing of urban concentrations was not considered a war crime because we had done more of it than the Germans and the Japanese. So that wasn't a war crime. You want to turn Tokyo into rubble? So much rubble you can't even drop an atom bomb there because nobody will see anything if you do, which is the real reason they didn't bomb Tokyo. That's not a war crime because we did it. Bombing Dresden is not a war crime. We did it. German Admiral Gernetz -- when he was brought to trial (he was a submarine commander or something) for sinking merchant vessels or whatever he did -- he called as a defense witness American Admiral Nimitz who testified that the U.S. had done pretty much the same thing, so he was off, he didn't get tried. And in fact if you run through the whole record, it turns out a war crime is any war crime that you can condemn them for but they can't condemn us for. Well, you know, that raises some questions.

I should say, actually, that this, interestingly, is said pretty openly by the people involved and it's regarded as a moral position. The chief prosecutor at Nuremberg was Telford Taylor. You know, a decent man. He wrote a book called Nuremberg and Vietnam. And in it he tries to consider whether there are crimes in Vietnam that fall under the Nuremberg principles. Predictably, he says not. But it's interesting to see how he spells out the Nuremberg principles.

They're just the way I said. In fact, I'm taking it from him, but he doesn't regard that as a criticism. He says, well, that's the way we did it, and should have done it that way. There's an article on this in The Yale Law Journal ["Review Symposium: War Crimes, the Rule of Force in International Affairs," The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 80, #7, June 1971] which is reprinted in a book [Chapter 3 of Chomsky's For Reasons of State (Pantheon, 1973)] if you're interested.

I think one ought to raise many questions about the Nuremberg tribunal, and especially the Tokyo tribunal. The Tokyo tribunal was in many ways farcical. The people condemned at Tokyo had done things for which plenty of people on the other side could be condemned. Furthermore, just as in the case of Saddam Hussein, many of their worst atrocities the U.S. didn't care about. Like some of the worst atrocities of the Japanese were in the late '30s, but the U.S. didn't especially care about that. What the U.S. cared about was that Japan was moving to close off the China market. That was no good. But not the slaughter of a couple of hundred thousand people or whatever they did in Nanking. That's not a big deal.


Posted by Gliscameria on 2008-05-27 17:38:02
Not suprising that 'war crimes' are decided after the fight and it's all the actions done by the loser that the winner didn't do. It is suprising that they continue using these same rules after-the-fact without ever admitting that we did some pretty horrible things.

How do you justify destroying entire cities and calling the enemy evil for any reason whatsoever? What is more evil than starving and bombing innocents?
Posted by Shockthewhatnow on 2009-11-20 23:34:44
I have to disagree with Chomsky's ending argument here. What does it matter the terms that a person is sentenced on, as long as their crimes do not go unpunished? Al Capone was convicted on tax evasion, but given a sentence more applicable to a murderer, which in fact he was. Likewise with the Japanese leadership.

Also, while I think only the staunchest denier of history could ignore all of the faults (sometimes shocking) in American foreign policy, it's an absolute mistake to equate anything done by the Americans with the atrocities committed by the Japanese during WWII.

Chomsky's willful ignorance and revisionism of history to fit his fanciful ideas of equality of tragic world events only leads to him being branded a simplistic fool by most of the political and historical community.
Posted by no suprise on 2009-12-04 12:51:47
I agree with the author. The thing is, not only history is written by the victors, but the victors are never tried. The Allies committed their fare share of war crimes in WWII, but the won.
reply to shockthewhat now
Posted by meliorate on 2010-07-03 16:59:02
"it's an absolute mistake to equate anything done by the Americans with the atrocities committed by the Japanese during WWII."

Ironic, you're position is exactly what Chomsky's argument was about. Quite the contrary to your statement, how could anything the japanese did equate with dropping atomics on densely-populated cities AFTER the emperor had offered surrender?
reply to shockthewhatnow
Posted by ilovenoamchomsky on 2010-09-22 11:36:49
"What does it matter the terms that a person is sentenced on, as long as their crimes do not go unpunished?"

Someone could easily argue against your point about Capone being sentenced for crimes he was not put on trial for. If within the means of the law it can't be proven beyond reasonable doubt that a man has committed an unlawful act why should he be sentenced for it? What you have suggested is a breeding ground for corruption and the inadequacies of the legal system seem justifiable to unfortunate.

"it's an absolute mistake to equate anything done by the Americans with the atrocities committed by the Japanese during WWII."

I think many people need to go outside what conventional history books teach and educate themselves. During WWII the US and it's allies invaded many countries, killing thousands of people, destroying governments and rebuilding as they saw fit all as a "precautionary measure" in their fight against the axis. Their 'we must get this territory before they do attitude' cost many lives. Then we have Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden the most famous cases of mass bombing but there are many others. You seem to blindly believe that the gov't is not as bad the Japanese when they committed equally heinous crimes and today's gov't might very well be the worse of all the world's current gov'ts. Sadly because many people think like you the gov't has allowed to get away with their many illegal acts.

sorry to say the only willfully ignorant thing i have read on this site is your post.


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