The Incident

by Harry Browne

February 3, 2003        

In 1939 England and France went to war with Germany. Franklin Roosevelt assured Winston Churchill privately that the United States would join England in its war, even as he reassured Americans publicly that their sons would never fight and die in a foreign war.

Americans were strongly opposed to getting into the war. So strongly that it was obvious to Roosevelt that he could never fulfill his promises to Churchill unless someone attacked the United States.

Since Hitler was trying very hard to avoid provoking a war with America, Roosevelt turned his attention to Japan especially after Japan and Germany signed a mutual defense treaty.

Roosevelt's diplomats held secret negotiations with the Japanese demanding that the Japanese give up their conquered possessions in Southeast Asia, although the U.S. didn't make similar demands that Britain, France, and the Netherlands give up their possessions.

Japan is an island country with virtually no natural resources of any note. It had been necessary to rely on trading with the colonies of Southeast Asia until the European colonial powers began monopolizing those resources. The Japanese leaders decided they had to establish colonies of their own by force, just as the European powers had.

Roosevelt's only interest in the Japanese' problems was that these problems put Japan in a vulnerable position where its leaders might do something drastic which is what he wanted. He stepped up the pressure on the Japanese, prohibiting critical exports from America to Japan.

Finally, it became obvious to the Japanese that war with America was inevitable. They knew they had practically no chance to win a war against the world's #1 industrial power. Their only hope lay in the possibility of destroying the American fleet at the outset.

And so the Japanese kept negotiating with the Americans in hope of reaching a peaceful settlement while making plans to attack Pearl Harbor if the negotiations failed. Roosevelt made sure the negotiations did fail, and the attack came.

That incident the Pearl Harbor attack caused the anti-war movement in America to collapse. Even Charles Lindbergh, the most public opponent of war, hurried to the recruiting office to enlist the day after Pearl Harbor.

It was only years and decades later that the full truth came out piece by piece that the Americans had broken the Japanese diplomatic and military codes and knew the Japanese intentions, that the American military had made a secret agreement with the British and Dutch to go to war with Japan, that Roosevelt had told his cabinet prior to Pearl Harbor that "we are at war; we now have to maneuver the Japanese into firing the first shot," that the American Chiefs of Staff had misled the Pearl Harbor commanders about the possibility of an attack on Pearl Harbor.

(For a brief summary of this deceit, see or


After World War II and the Korean War stalemate, the American people were in no mood to go to war again.

However, the American government had been engaged in a war against Vietnam both overtly and covertly. The war had started in 1945 when Vietnamese nationalists wanted independence from France and the French government resisted. The U.S. taxpayers financed nearly half the French side before the French threw in the towel.

By that time Vietnam had been divided "temporarily" between the North, run by communist dictator Ho Chi Minh, and the South, run by non-communist dictator Ngo Dinh Diem. The war resumed soon afterward only now it was a civil war between the two parts of Vietnam. The U.S. aided the South, but the American public was still generally opposed to U.S. troops fighting in another foreign war.

But in August 1964 an incident occurred.

The American navy was covertly aiding South Vietnamese troops making commando raids in North Vietnam. The destroyers Maddox and C. Turner Joy were in the Gulf of Tonkin providing support when they reported being attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats.

The U.S. retaliated with air strikes against North Vietnamese Naval bases and oil storage areas. Lyndon Johnson also used the incident to gain support for a Congressional resolution authorizing him to use "all necessary measures to repel any armed attacks against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression." No one seemed interested in asking what "the forces of the United States" were doing in North Vietnam in the first place.

Needless to say, it turned out that there had been no attack against the American destroyers, that the Johnson administration already had plans to widen the war, and that administration officials had used hazy, ambiguous reports from the Gulf of Tonkin to do what they had wanted to do anyway. (In 1970 Congress repealed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.)

The incident had served the purpose of the American politicians who wanted to escalate the war.


On September 11, 2001, a single incident transformed overnight a President with a mediocre approval rating into the Glorious Leader of the Free World.


So now we come to Iraq.

Since taking office in January 2001 even before September 11 George Bush has made it plain that he wants to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. He has never offered any satisfactory reasons for this only the assertion of secret evidence that Iraq has powerful weapons and intends to use them against America, and that Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda are in cahoots, as well as the obvious fact that Saddam Hussein is a dictatorial leader (supposedly the only such dictator in the world).

In the wake of September 11, most Americans were willing to go along with anything George Bush wanted provided it was justified in some way as an act of revenge for the September 11 attacks.

But as time has passed, the desire for blood has lessened, and Americans politicians, writers, and ordinary people have become more questioning and skeptical about any supposed need to attack Iraq.

If George Bush were to order such an attack tomorrow morning, most Americans probably would support him. The anti-war movement collapsed with Pearl Harbor, and it also collapsed the moment the American military attacked Iraq in 1991 (even though after the war it became clear that skepticism was justified). The argument is along the lines of "my country right or wrong" no matter how many times my government proves to have been wrong.

But I don't think George Bush wants reluctant support for a war against Iraq. He undoubtedly wants the kind of support he received after September 11. Anything less than that might not get him reelected next year.

He needs an incident. He needs a "smoking gun" provocation so he can "retaliate" against Iraq.

What Might Happen

It seems obvious that Saddam Hussein is determined not to provide such a provocation. Doing so would be tantamount to suicide. He can't win a war with America. He knows that such a war will not only depose him, but probably result in his execution by a to-the-victor-goes-the-spoils war-crimes tribunal.

Consequently, he has allowed inspectors into his country to search for weapons (what other government in the world has done so voluntarily?). He has submitted to UN resolutions. He has carefully avoided doing anything that would allow world opinion to be rallied in favor of an attack against him.

What does all this mean?

I can't predict the future, but I do know this:

  • If an incident against America occurs a chemical attack in the U.S., a building destroyed, American troops attacked somewhere the odds are 1,000 to 1 against the possibility that Saddam Hussein caused it, no matter what "evidence" is asserted or even presented publicly.

  • If an incident occurs, it will be an answer to George Bush's daily prayers.

  • If an incident occurs, we most likely won't know the truth behind it until years later long after the American people have lost interest in the subject, just as with the previous war-inspiring incidents.


The problem isn't George Bush.

The problem is that American Presidents have too much power and not enough hobbies to keep their minds occupied.

We will always be in fear of being dragged into war so long as American Presidents have the power to do whatever they want. As Michael Cloud has pointed out, "The problem isn't the abuse of power; it's the power to abuse."

The power has been abused by Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush. And it will be abused by the next President as well.

Why? Because the power is there waiting to be abused.

Presidents have too much power over domestic affairs and too much power over foreign affairs.

The Great Libertarian Offer, if enacted, would remove most of the domestic power.

And I have fashioned a Peace Amendment to the Constitution that would remove most of the power to drag us into war.

The Founding Fathers knew that America wouldn't succeed by trying to elect the right politicians to office. So they tried, as Jefferson put it, to "bind them down from mischief with the chains of the Constitution."

And that is what we must do.