The Newspaper of War
Many years ago, Ho Chi Minh’s North Vietnam, Communist China, and Soviet Russia were saying one thing about what had happened in the Gulf of Tonkin in early August 1964, while President Johnson and top administration officials were all saying the exact opposite. How should the Times have responded to that situation, assuming a commitment to an independent press and an informed citizenry?
Ten years earlier, in July 1954, the governments of Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and China all signed the Final Declaration of the Geneva Accord on Vietnam, which formally concluded France’s U.S.-supported colonial war in Vietnam. The United States refused to sign, and thereafter proceeded to undermine the most important stipulation of the accord – that elections to unify the northern and southern zones of Vietnam take place in 1956. By what journalistic criteria should the New York Times have covered this refusal by the Eisenhower administration to sign and comply with the Geneva Accord on Vietnam, which opened the door to the twenty-year American military campaign in Vietnam?
When Bush, Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld, and Rice claimed in 2001-2003 that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, including an active nuclear weapons program, and when Saddam Hussein denied those claims, what journalistic standard did the Times apply in its response to those conflicting claims?
Journalism schools should teach a course focused on questions like these, given that over the past sixty years the Times and every other mainstream news organization has repeatedly flunked such tests, in each instance aiding the government’s efforts in its illegal interventions and wars.
Another chapter in this grim journalistic history is being written today by the Times’ foreign-desk editors and correspondents, as well as its editorial and op-ed page commentators, in their coverage of the United States v. Putin about Ukraine, which will be the focus of Part Two of this article.
The fact is that Times editorial policy – essentially unchanged since the late-nineteenth century – has never emphasized enlightened law as a standard of coverage to be applied to U.S. foreign policy, has seldom reported the facts independently of the executive’s war-related pronouncements, has usually supported U.S. interventions and U.S.-backed coups abroad, and has never questioned the “clean hands” and moral right of the United States to punish others via economic sanctions or otherwise.
At a minimum, the Times should clarify its position concerning the following proposition: The Times has a journalistic duty to its readers and to the public to report the discernible facts and the relevant law in its coverage of U.S. foreign policy, including instances when public statements by the United States and its real or imagined enemies are in conflict.
Under the Constitution, as Hugo Black wrote in the Pentagon Papers case, “the press was to serve the governed, not the governors”; however, the allegiance of the Times is clearly with the governors. The ongoing loyalty at the Times to those in power pretty much guarantees that it will continue to push the nation to war or the threat of war when the occasion to do so presents itself, as it has since at least the Geneva Accords on Vietnam, which is as far back as Richard Falk and I traveled when we looked at the Times’ coverage of major U.S. foreign policy issues for our two books on the subject: The Record of the Paper (Verso, 2004) and Israel-Palestine on Record (Verso, 2007).
The samples below dating back to 1954, although they scratch the surface, show this to be the case. The fact is that the Times coverage of events in Ukraine in recent months fits the long-standing record of the Times subservience to government officials when the United States engages in policies that violate international law, democratic principles, and human rights abroad, even while those same government officials are targeting the American citizenry itself with interventionist propaganda.
The Geneva Accord on Vietnam, 1954
The signing ceremony of the Geneva Accords on Vietnam in the early morning hours of July 21, 1954, marked the official end of the French colonial war in Vietnam, during which more than 300,000 Vietnamese were killed from 1946 to 1954, with $2 billion of assistance from the United States.
The accords consisted of three agreements on the cessation of hostilities in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and a “Final Declaration of the Geneva Conference.”
While describing the Geneva Accords as a “national defeat” for the French, Hanson Baldwin, the prominent foreign correspondent of the Times, in a news article titled, “New Victory for Reds,” wrote: “The Geneva peace also represented a defeat for the United States, for despite massive aid to the French our policies were ineffective.” Baldwin continued: “If the Allied nations had formed a Southeast Asia alliance, if Britain and the United States had been willing to pay the high price of military intervention in Indochina, if France had given her expeditionary force wholehearted support, if the Allies had stuck together, the answer might have been different.”
Referring to U.S. and European colonial interests, Baldwin lamented further that “widespread repercussions are to be anticipated, unfavorable to the United States point of view in Asia and Africa,” including “increased Nationalist and Communist-sponsored agitation in French North Africa, important to the French economy and French military strength, and to the United States for air bases.”
With respect to the specific terms of the Geneva Accord on Vietnam, Baldwin wrote: “The military problem is further sharpened by the provision that would require the withdrawal of all ‘foreign troops.’ About 75,000 Frenchmen, 18,000 French Legionnaires, and 50,000 to 60,000 Africans [who] have been the heart and soul of the Vietnamese defense.” “Moreover,” Baldwin wrote, “the provision for a general election to reunite Vietnam may mean political communization of the whole area.”
In short, pursuant to the Geneva Accord on Vietnam and the signing of the Final Declaration by England, France, the Soviet Union, and China, Baldwin wrote: “The Communists have scored another major victory in the struggle for the world with a cease-fire attained in the Indochinese War.”
Likewise, the New York Times editorial on the signing of the Geneva Accord on Vietnam claimed, without elaborating, that the Geneva settlement “in many respects runs contrary to the principles for which we stand,” and supported the decision by the Eisenhower administration to disassociate itself from the accord by refusing to sign the Final Declaration.
The editorial criticized the terms of the accord on the grounds that it would “turn over more than half of [Vietnam’s] 22 million people to Communist rule,” and would “give the Communist sector a great advantage in the elections scheduled to be held two years hence [in 1956], which could “end in Vietnam’s ‘unification’ under Communist domination.”
The Tonkin Gulf, 1964
At 11:37 p.m. on August 4, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson announced on national television that U.S. air attacks inside North Vietnam were underway in response to “open aggression on the high seas against the United States of America” in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam. The president was referring to supposed North Vietnamese PT-boat attacks on two American destroyers – the USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy – that he said had occurred earlier that day, and to his decision to order a reprisal bombing of North Vietnam.
Minutes later, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara reported that the U.S. military reprisal was an “appropriate action in view of the unprovoked attack in international waters on United States naval vessels.”
The next day, August 5, the eight-column headline on the front-page of the New York Times reported:
U.S. PLANES ATTACK NORTH VIETNAM BASESPRESIDENT ORDERS ‘LIMITED’ RETALIATIONAFTER COMMUNISTS’ PT BOATS RENEW RAIDS
The lead front-page story on the incident said that the president’s order to bomb North Vietnam “followed a naval battle in which a number of North Vietnamese PT boats attacked two United States destroyers with torpedoes.”
A second front-page story reported that McNamara “said that the [U.S. air] attacks had been directed against the bases used by the North Vietnamese PT boats that attacked two United States destroyers in international waters yesterday.”
In a third front-page story, titled “Reds Driven Off,” the Times reported that “the Defense Department announced tonight that North Vietnamese PT boats made a ‘deliberate attack’ today on two United States destroyers patrolling international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin off North Vietnam.”
Throughout its news coverage that day and the days that followed, the Times reported the North Vietnamese attacks on the Maddox and Turner Joy on August 4 as established facts as claimed by top Johnson administration officials.
The Times editorial page, on August 5, in effect confirmed those events, arguing that Johnson had presented “the American people last night with the somber facts.” The editorial, also referring to the supposed first attack on the Maddox on August 2 in the Gulf of Tonkin, gave its support to the reprisal bombing of North Vietnam:
The attack on one of our warships that at first seemed, and was hoped to be, an isolated incident is now seen in ominous perspective to have been the beginning of a mad adventure by the North Vietnamese Communists. After offensive action against more vessels of our Navy the President has backed up with retaliatory fire the warnings that North Vietnam chose frequently to ignore.
The editorial also echoed Johnson’s claim that he sought “no wider war,” although the decision to bomb targets inside North Vietnam itself signaled a major military escalation in Vietnam.
We know today that the charges issued by President Johnson and Defense Secretary McNamara – that North Vietnamese boats had attacked U.S. destroyers on August 2 and August 4 in the Gulf of Tonkin – were not accurate. We also know that the Times headlines, news reports, and editorial on August 5 about an August 4 incident in the Gulf of Tonkin – tied as they all were to official claims made by the Johnson administration – also were not accurate.
We also know that, rather than seeking “no wider war” in it reprisal bombing of North Vietnam, the Johnson administration had already authorized secret paramilitary actions inside North Vietnam with the aim of provoking an incident that the administration could then exploit as a pretext for escalating U.S. involvement in Vietnam. (See, for example, Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Pantheon, 1988, 207.)
Although there was no way to know at the moment whether U.S warships were indeed attacked by North Vietnamese boats, the Times reported the Johnson administration’s claims as an established fact. The Times also did not question the provocative nature of two powerful U.S. destroyers patrolling waters off the coast of North Vietnam. Furthermore, even assuming that North Vietnamese boats had attacked the Maddox and Turner Joy, the U.S. reprisal bombing of targets inside North Vietnam was an illegal use of force under international law, given the UN Charter’s overarching prohibition of the threat and use of force, a point which the Times never made.
Iraq, 2001 – 2003
On March 20, 2003, the United States initiated a military invasion of Iraq. This attack followed numerous prior threats from the Bush administration that it would attack Iraq. Despite the fact that an invasion of one country by another implicates the most important rule of the UN Charter, the New York Times editorial page never mentioned the words “UN Charter” or “international law” in any of its seventy editorials on Iraq from September 11, 2001, to March 20, 2003. Thus, the leading editorial voice in the United States simply declined to consider in print whether a major U.S. military invasion of another country violated the most important rule of international law. (See Howard Friel and Richard Falk, The Record of the Paper, Verso, 2004, 15.)
Even while Bush administration officials cited the invasion as the front-line event of its global “preventive war” doctrine – a doctrine with no basis in international law – the Times editorial page declined in general to cite international law in assessing the doctrine.
And even as the Times editorial page ignored the critical legal implications of the Bush administration’s threats to invade Iraq, it enthusiastically supported the administration’s claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, including in the following editorials:
♦“Iraq already possesses biological and chemical weapons, and Mr. [Saddam] Hussein would probably not hesitate to use them in a desperate effort to prevent the dissolution of his regime.” (“Steps Before War,” New York Times, August 11, 2002.)♦“Iraq, with its storehouses of biological toxins, its advanced nuclear weapons program, its defiance of international sanctions and its ambitiously malignant dictator, is precisely the kind of threat that the United Nations was established to deal with.” (“The Iraq Test,” New York Times, September 13, 2002.)♦“The combination of Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs, especially his effort to produce nuclear weapons, and Iraq’s brazen defiance of the Security Council represent a serious threat to international order.” (“A Measured Pace on Iraq,” New York Times, September 14, 2002.)♦“That makes it all the more important to clarify what really counts in this conflict. The answer is the destruction of Iraq’s unconventional weapons and the dismantling of its program to develop nuclear weapons.” (“A Road Map for Iraq,” New York Times, September 18, 2002.)♦“Saddam Hussein is obviously a brutal dictator who deserves toppling. No one who knows his history can doubt that he is secretly trying to develop weapons of mass destruction.” (“The Race to War,” New York Times, January 26, 2003.)♦“Secretary of State Colin Powell presented the United Nations and a global television audience yesterday with the most powerful case to date that Saddam Hussein stands in defiance of Security Council resolutions and has no intention of revealing or surrendering whatever unconventional weapons he may have.” (“The Case against Iraq,” New York Times, February 6, 2003.)♦“It’s up to the [UN Security] Council members – especially the veto-wielding quintet of the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China – to decide whether Iraq is disarming. In our judgment, Iraq is not.” (“Disarming Iraq,” New York Times, February 15, 2003.)♦“The United States wants a new [Security Council] resolution reaffirming the conclusion that Iraq has failed to disarm, effectively opening the way to war sanctioned by the United Nations. France, supported by Germany and Russia, prefers to give Hans Blix and his inspectors more time to see if they can disarm Iraq. The American resolution, introduced by Britain, deserves the Security Council’s support.” (“Facing Down Iraq,” New York Times, February 25, 2003.)♦“Baghdad is still a very long way from living up to the Security Council’s demand for it to give up its unconventional weapons.” (“A Fractured Security Council,” New York Times, March 8, 2003.)♦“America is on its way to war. President Bush has told Saddam Hussein to depart or face attack. For Mr. Hussein, getting rid of weapons of mass destruction is no longer an option.” (War in the Ruins of Democracy,” New York Times, March 18, 2003.)
Although Judith Miller was eventually singled out as the main perpetrator of propagandistic reports on the news side of the Times’ coverage of Iraq, nearly every reporter who covered Iraq for the Times reflected the pro-administration fervor that was seen (as above) on the editorial page.
For example, in an April 2003 report from Iraq titled, “A High Point in 2 Decades of U.S. Might,” the veteran Times reporter, R.W. (Johnny) Apple, wrote this about the post-invasion occurrence to a statue of Saddam Hussein (the words in parentheses belong to Apple):
Some of the Iraqis in the streets today were jubilant. Some dragged the head of the shattered statue through the streets, which provided pictures that must have gratified the White House. (Photographs of Mr. Hussein himself, strung up by the heels like the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in the final months of World War II, would have been even more welcome.)
On April 4, 2003, while witnessing the U.S. bombing of Baghdad, Times correspondent John F. Burns, wrote: “American air power, as the 21st century begins, is a terrible swift sword that strikes with a suddenness, a devastation and a precision, in most cases, that moves even agnostics to reach for words associated with the power of gods.”
On the same day, April 4, while the United States was bombing Iraq “with the power of the gods,” another Times correspondent, Susan Sachs, in an article titled, “Arab Media Portray War as Killing Field,” complained that Arab-based news media were unfairly covering the story of civilian casualties in Iraq: “Horrific vignettes of the helpless – armless children, crushed babies, stunned mothers – cascade into Arab living rooms from the front pages of newspapers and television screens.” Sachs argued that “the rage against the United States is fed,” not by the bombing itself, but “by this steady diet of close-up photography and television footage of dead and wounded Iraqis, described as victims of American bombs.”
In an important front-page article published on September 8, 2002, a day after the Bush administration initiated a public-relations campaign to convince the American public of the need to invade Iraq, Michael Gordon and Judith Miller issued a report in which they cited anonymous Bush administration sources and anonymous Iraqi defectors to convey the administration’s claims that Iraq had WMD and posed a threat to the United States. To emphasize the extent to which Gordon and Miller relied on anonymous sources, excerpts from their September 8 report appear below, with their references to those sources highlighted in italics:
♦More than a decade after Saddam Hussein agreed to give up weapons of mass destruction, Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb, Bush administration officials said today.♦The diameter, thickness and other technical specifications of the aluminum tubes had persuaded American intelligence experts that they were meant for Iraq’s nuclear program, officials said, and that the latest attempt to ship the material had taken place in recent months.♦Iraqi defectors who once worked for the nuclear weapons establishment have told American officials that acquiring nuclear arms is a top Iraqi priority.♦An Iraqi defector said Mr. [Saddam] Hussein had also heightened his efforts to develop new types of chemical weapons. An Iraqi opposition leader also gave American officials a paper from Iranian intelligence indicating that Mr. Hussein has authorized regional commanders to use chemical and biological weapons to put down any Shiite Muslim resistance that might occur if the United States attacks.♦“The jewel in the crown is nuclear,” a senior administration official said. “The closer he [Saddam Hussein] gets to a nuclear capability, the more credible is his threat to use chemical or biological weapons. Nuclear weapons are his hole card.”♦Still, Mr. Hussein’s dogged insistence on pursuing his nuclear ambitions, along with what defectors described in interviews as Iraq’s push to improve and expand Baghdad’s chemical and biological arsenals, have brought Iraq and the United States to the brink of war.♦Bush administration officials say the quest for thousands of high-strength tubes is one of several signs that Mr. Hussein is seeking to revamp and accelerate Iraq’s nuclear weapons program.♦Officials say the aluminum tubes were intended as casings for rotors in centrifuges, which are one means of producing highly enriched uranium.♦In addition to the special aluminum tubes, a senior administration official said Iraq had made efforts to purchase other equipment, epoxy and resins that could be used for centrifuges. A key issue is whether the items Iraq tried to buy are uniquely designed for centrifuge use or could have other applications.♦Senior administration officials insist that the dimensions, specifications and numbers of the tubes Iraq sought to buy show that they were intended for the nuclear program.♦In interviews in a European capital late last month, an Iraqi who said he was involved in the chemical weapons program before he defected two years ago said that Mr. Hussein had never stopped producing VX and other chemical agents, even when international inspectors were in Iraq.♦Speaking on the condition that neither he nor the country in which he was interviewed be identified, Ahmed al-Shemri, his pseudonym, said Iraq had continued developing, producing and storing chemical agents at many mobile and fixed secret sites throughout the country, many of them underground.♦Mr. Shemri [the pseudonym] said Iraq had produced 5 tons of stable VX in liquid form between 1994 and 1998, before inspectors were forced to leave Iraq. Some of this agent, he said, was made in secret labs in the northern city of Mosul and in the southern city of Basra, which Unscom inspectors confirmed they had rarely visited because of their long distance from Baghdad. He said Iraq had the ability to make at least 50 tons of liquid nerve agent, which he said was to be loaded into two kinds of bombs and dropped from planes.♦Of even greater concern is Mr. Shemri’s allegation that Iraq had invented, as early as 1994, and is now producing, a new, solid VX agent that clings to a soldier’s protective clothing and makes contamination difficult.♦Mr. Shemri said Iraq had received assistance in chemical, germ and nuclear programs from Russian scientists who are still working in Iraq. At least two Iraqi scientists traveled to North Korea in early 2002 to study missile technology, he said.♦Mr. Shemri said he had been told that Iraq was still storing some 12,500 gallons of anthrax, 2,500 gallons of gas gangrene, 1,250 gallons of aflotoxin and 2,000 gallons of botulinum throughout the country.♦American officials have also expressed intense concern about [Iraqi possession of] smallpox, one of history’s greatest scourges, which was declared eradicated from human populations in 1980.
With the exception of non-substantive references to President Bush, Gordon and Miller never cited a single Bush administration official or Iraqi defector by name in the September 8 article. And given that the Times reported on September 7 that “White House officials said today [September 6] that the administration was following a meticulously planned strategy to persuade the public, the Congress and the allies of the need to confront the threat from Saddam Hussein,” the Times article by Michael Gordon and Judith Miller looks like an intentional contribution to that effort.
Gordon would reprise his role years later as a conduit for government propaganda as one of the three correspondents who wrote the now-discredited front-page article in the Times on April 20 of this year titled, “Photos Link Masked Men in East Ukraine to Russia.”
There is in fact a good deal in common with the New York Times coverage of U.S policy toward Vietnam and Iraq with its coverage of U.S. policy toward Ukraine, as detailed in Part Two of this article.
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