Nuremberg Laws Were Applied...
By Noam Chomsky
A Lecture at St. Michael's College, 1990
- - 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 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.
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