Forty years ago, on the morning of April 26, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson spoke with a top State Department official about fast-moving events in the Dominican Republic. A popular rebellion was on the verge of toppling a military junta and restoring the country's democratically elected president, Juan Bosch, to power.
"This Bosch is no good," Mr. Johnson said. "He's no good at all," replied Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Mann, who added: "If we don't get a decent government in there, Mr. President, we get another Bosch. It's just going to be another sinkhole."
Two days after that phone conversation, thousands of U.S. Marines landed on the beaches of Santo Domingo. By then, the White House spin machinery was in high gear. When the president went on television to declare that the military action was necessary to rescue U.S. citizens, he didn't mention that nearly all of them had already been evacuated before the Marines arrived.
Mr. Johnson maintained that "99 percent of our reason for going in there was to try to provide protection for these American lives and the lives of other nationals." But the Dominican Republic's military rulers had not cited any need for such protection in their written request for U.S. intervention.
More than two months later, at a closed session of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Mann testified that Washington had asked its ambassador in Santo Domingo to see if the Dominican regime would "be willing to give us an additional message which places the request squarely on the need to save American lives."
While new waves of U.S. troops reached Santo Domingo, the public explanations for the invasion gradually shifted. On April 30, during a second televised speech, Mr. Johnson referred to "signs that people trained outside the Dominican Republic are seeking to gain control."
On May 2, LBJ pulled out the rhetorical stops, telling TV viewers that "what began as a popular democratic revolution, committed to democracy and social justice, very shortly moved and was taken over and really seized and placed into the hands of a band of Communist conspirators." But the evidence for Communist involvement was as flimsy as the claim about needing to save American citizens.
Most American politicians and media commentators readily accepted the official line, along with the reported death toll of 31 U.S. troops and 3,000 Dominicans, many of them civilians. Four decades later, the invasion is scarcely remembered in the United States. Yet there's a familiar ring to its story line, featuring a disingenuous administration and a deferential press corps selling the public on the dire need for an invasion. Key facts were lost in the kind of exculpatory fog that often prettifies the nation's view of its own military actions.
In March 1999, Newsweek flatly reported that "America has not started a war in this century." Many politicians - including avowed liberals - eagerly falsify history in a similar spirit to juice up their rhetoric.
When Howard Dean was a candidate for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, his campaign put out a broadside that denounced "a Bush-Cheney policy where, for the first time in American history, we commit to war before exhausting our efforts to commit to peace." Such statements pander to nationalistic conceits at the expense of candor. They apply perfume to the past and tacitly endorse a low threshold for war in the future.
The invasion of the Dominican Republic turned out to be the first in a modern series of U.S. military interventions that produced quick victories overseas and evident satisfaction at home. The sudden and overwhelming arrival of U.S. troops in Santo Domingo was a prototype for the lightning-strike invasions of Grenada and Panama in the 1980s.
Beyond the Western Hemisphere, larger-scale military actions ensued against Iraq in 1991, Yugoslavia in 1999 and Afghanistan in 2001, all followed by victorious celebrations back in the United States. Only defeat (Vietnam) or stalemate (post-invasion Iraq) have seemed to give the Washington establishment pause. The most tangible constraints appear to be military rather than political or ethical.
In their phone conversation two days before the Marines landed, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Mann were already planning the post-invasion government of the Dominican Republic.
A tape recording of the discussion conveys large doses of imperial arrogance. "We're going to have to really set up that government down there," the president said, "and run it and stabilize it some way or other."
Forty years later, it's easy to imagine similar conversations in the present-day Oval Office.