If the Nuremberg Laws were Applied…
By Noam Chomsky
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.