False Flags

Invaders and the Lies They Tell From Nazi Germany to Russia and the US

Russia’s sketchy justifications for moving on Crimea call to mind a century’s worth of false or flimsy excuses great powers have used to justify invasions.

03.07.14 9:56 PM ET

Vladimir Putin justifies Russia’s military presence in Crimea as the only defense against gangs of neo-Nazi hooligans who destroyed the rightful, i.e., Russia-friendly, government in Kiev and are now imperiling Ukraine’s Russian-speaking citizens. Most of what Putin and his henchmen have offered by way of evidence to defend Russian aggression is transparently propagandistic, such as supposed news footage showing Ukrainians clamoring to cross the border into Russia (in fact, they were clamoring to get into Poland).

Such rampant aggression, coupled with cynical disingenuousness, is just the thing to elicit all manner of pieties from the West. Sure enough: “It is really a stunning, willful choice by President Putin to invade another country,” Secretary of State John Kerry said this week. “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.”

Ah, but you do. When it comes to invading foreign countries on false or flimsy pretexts, the Russians have lots of company.

Whether you agree with Kerry or not, it is plain that he glossed over about, oh, a century’s worth of suspect invasions and dubious casus belli. There was no need to talk about “19th century fashion” when the last century—and the current century, for that matter—offered up such abundant, not to say embarrassing, evidence of what the secretary was talking about (and because we’re not talking about the 19th century, we won’t mention that U.S. land grab so delicately called the Mexican War of 1846).

A list of some--but by no means all--invasions conducted under false pretenses in the last century:

1938. Nazi Germany annexed the Sudetenland, the northwestern section of Czechoslovakia, claiming with no evidence whatsoever that the Czechs were slaughtering thousands of German-speaking minorities.

1939. Germany invaded Poland, defending its actions in part by claiming that Polish troops had attacked a German radio station in upper Silesia. The attackers were, in fact, German troops masquerading as Poles.

1956. Russia and several of her allies in the Communist bloc invaded Hungary to extinguish that nation’s democratizing revolution. According to Pravda, the revolution was the work of fascist, Hitlerite, reactionary, counter-revolutionary thugs financed by the imperialist West. The uprising was only crushed, Moscow claimed, after the Hungarian people appealed to Soviet forces to assist in returning order, and the revolution was supposedly crushed by Hungarian patriots with Russian assistance. (It was crushed by Soviet tanks.)

No one from the West came to Hungary’s aid. As Vice President Richard Nixon would explain years later, “We couldn’t on one hand complain about the Soviets intervening in Hungary and on the other hand approve of the British and the French picking that particular time to intervene against [Gamel Abdel] Nasser” by  attempting to wrest control of the Suez Canal from Egypt.

1968. Russia and four “fraternal allies” invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the liberal reformist “Prague Spring” government of Alexander Dubcek. According to the Russians, they were again invited into the country by conservative members of the Soviet-controlled government; letters were produced, including one that surfaced in 1990 begging the Russians  to “lend support and assistance with all means at your disposal.”

1964. President Lyndon Johnson persuaded Congress to approve the Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing the president “to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty.” It proved to be a blank check for war. The purported excuse for the resolution were two attacks by the North Vietnamese on the USS Maddox, a Navy destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin, although even Naval intelligence later questioned whether the second attack happened at all.

1983. Two days after the assassination of Grenada’s leftist Prime Minister Maurice Bishop, the Reagan administration authorized an invasion of the tiny island, after months of public fretting about the little country’s big airport runway that, perhaps because some of the funding came from Cuba, was seen as a potential launching pad for attacks on the U.S. A further pretext offered by the administration was the need to protect American medical students who, at least until the invasion succeeded, said they needed no protection. Even certain U.S. allies harshly criticized the invasion—including British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher—and the United Nations condemned it as “a flagrant violation of international law.”

1990. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, its former ally, on the pretext, never proven, that Kuwait was pilfering oil from Iraq.

And then, of course, in 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq on the grounds that Iraq was harboring weapons of mass destruction that subsequent investigations failed to discover. There is plenty of reason to suspect that the members of the Bush administration believed in the bad intelligence they sold to Congress and the American people. Which, if true, is almost as troubling as believing that they knowingly lied.