Is Fear The Father Of Us All?
Published on: February 14, 2011
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  • Walter,

    Your blog is an ongoing feast of wisdom and insight. Your grasp of history’s lessons and their implications for today are unmatched anywhere.

    Thank you so much for making your work so readily available. It is a true privilege to be able to learn from you.

    Fred Unger

  • Luke Lea

    From the time of the first military conquest and the institution of servitude history has been little else than the history of warring states in a relentless competition for power, driven on by the single though that if we don’t do it to them then they will do it to us. Hurry.

    As Einstein said about the atomic bomb, “Now everything has changed except our way of thinking.” What do you do if China starts massing over the borders of central Asia and shows a willingness to use tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield?

    The only alternative is a system of international governance, starting with Europe and the U.S. and Japan. Act now.

  • Thomas Holsinger

    Jacksonians have a Gordian-Knot solution to such strategic problems. Americans really are like that in a serious war, and were about to kill most of the Japanese people in the fall of 1945. This is why Richard Fernandes was spot-on in his Three Conjectures, and Mr. Mead in his Special Providence.

    “When A Democracy Chose Genocide -June 18, 1945 – The United States government decided on June 18, 1945, to commit genocide on Japan with poison gas if its government did not surrender after the nuclear attacks approved in the same June 18 meeting. This was discovered by military historians Norman Polmar and Thomas Allen while researching a book on the end of the war in the Pacific. Their discovery came too late for inclusion in the book, so they published it instead in the Autumn 1997 issue of Military History Quarterly.

    Polmar & Allen ran across references to this meeting in their research and put in a Freedom of Information Act request for related documents. Eventually they received, too late for use in their book, a copy of a document labeled “A Study of the Possible Use of Toxic Gas in Operation Olympic.” The word “retaliatory” was PENCILED in between the words “possible” and “use”.

    Apparently there were only five of these documents circulated during World War Two. The document was requested by the Chemical Corps for historical study in 1947. In an attempt to “redact” history, another document was issued to change all the copies to emphasize retaliatory use rather than the reality of the US planning to use it offensively in support of the invasion of Japan.

    … The targets of the strategic bombing campaign were Japanese civilians in cities. Chemical Corps casualty estimates for this attack plan were five million dead with another five million injured. This was our backup to nuking Japan into surrender. If the A-bombs didn’t work, we were going to gas the Japanese people from the air like bugs, and keep doing so until Japanese resistance ended or all the Japanese were dead.

    … What brought the United States government to that decision was the prospective casualties of a prolonged ground conquest of Japan against suicidal resistance, after Japanese Kamikaze attacks and suicidal ground resistance elsewhere had thoroughly dehumanized them to us.

    The American people certainly would have supported such tactics at the time, especially as Japanese Imperial General Headquarters issued orders a month later, provided to us courtesy of code-breaking (MAGIC), to murder all Allied prisoners of war, all interned Allied civilians, and all other Allied civilians Japanese forces could catch in occupied China, the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), Malaya, etc., starting with the impending British invasion of Malaya in late September 1945. The Imperial Japanese Army was every bit as evil as the Nazi SS, and more lethal. They’d probably have killed at least an additional 50 million people, more than had died in all of World War Two to that point, before Allied armies could eliminate Japanese forces overseas.

    The horror would not have stopped there. An estimated ONE THIRD of the Japanese people (25-30 million) would have died of starvation, disease, poison gas and conventional weapons during a prolonged ground conquest of Japan. The Japanese Army planned on locking up the Emperor, seizing power and fighting to the bitter end once the US invasion started. Thank God for the atom bomb – killing 150,000 – 200,000 Japanese at Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved 75-80 million lives. One of whom would have been the writer’s father, an infantry lieutenant who survived Okinawa.

    So the United States has within living memory made a decision to commit genocide on a whole people as a matter of state policy. We didn’t have to do it because the Japanese Emperor knew we’d do it …”

  • “Thucydides has been studied by every generation of thoughtful Americans from the founding fathers to the present day”

    I wonder if Obama has read Thucydides, or any other classical history?

    Most likely, only if such reading was considered cool among his college circle..

  • tfvcu34ibgvy

    Free e-book

    The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides

  • jbay


    I found Alexander Popes Essay on Criticism as all encompassing a response one can make to every thought on every topic.

    While you mentioned, “in not so many words”, the conflict between Russia and America I would also point out that the conflict between Athens and Sparta is waged between Federalists and the States to this day. The brilliance of Franklin was to find a solution for co-existence of the two streams.

    Fear: Only when we stop being afraid can we as a species have piece. We can limit fear by: acknowledging we’re doomed to die anyway, reflecting on why we fight and what for, reflecting upon our own motivations and finally realizing those same motivations exist within every human being.

    I’ll write something about fear and human nature this week on the matter:

  • jorge c.

    Prof.Russell Mead:
    Have you read Karl Popper’s “The Open society and its Enemies”? He had another vision about The Peloponnesian War

  • John Rylander

    Thomas, naively it would seem to me that a “study of possible use” is not an operational plan, and a plan is not an order.

    What evidence is there that the US military (as opposed to a study group or one set of planners) ever actually committed to this as a plan?

  • Colin Glassey

    The story of the fall of Athens was known to most (all) educated men like the founding fathers of this country which is why they did not create a democracy, instead they created a republic, like Rome. But an improved republic in a number of ways, including a unitary executive and one who served four years (not just one as in Rome). Our republic is better than Rome’s and vastly superior to the Athenian democracy.

    Again, our founding fathers learned from the lessons of the past. If you read the Federalist papers you see a knowledge of historical mistakes permeates the writing. Not just the lessons from Greece and Rome but also Poland and the problems of the Dutch government, things which I dare say, 99% of the U.S. have no understanding of (because we don’t teach it).

  • seguin

    There’s one line in Thucydides that I can always remember…”[it was a time when] being able to look at things simply, always the mark of a noble mind, was derided as foolish…” It reminds me of what is happening now, and that line was at the very beginning of the Peloponnesian War. It makes me shudder.

  • Tom Holsinger

    A useful book to consider here is Empires Of Trust by Thomas F. Madden. His description of the interaction between post-Punic, pre-civil war Rome, and the Greeks is often entertaining too.

  • Tom Holsinger

    John Rylander,

    First, read “Gassing Japan”, Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen, MHQ: the Quarterly Journal of Military History, vol 10 no 1 (Autumn 1997), pp 38-43, and The Most Deadly Plan, Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen, Proceeding of the US Naval Institute, January 1998 edition, pp 79-81.

    The most obvious actual evidence consists of the sudden surges in movements of chemical weapons (not smoke) munitions from the United States and Australia to the operational Pacific theaters. Those shipments increased dramatically after June 18, 1945. Hundreds of thousands of tons of chemical weapons munitions were suddenly shipped out, and more than 100,000 tons were immediately available for use in the Okinawa – Japan theater when Hiroshima was nuked.

    Keep in mind that Allied SIGINT kept Allied leaders well informed of the Japanese plans for genocide of all Allied civilians they could catch. This explains, as an example, MacArthur’s otherwise puzzling contingency plan to invade Java in September-October 1945 with just the 503rd Airborne regiment and one regiment of the 93rd Infantry Division (colored). He ordered 8th Army commander General Eichelberger to develop the plan in APRIL 1945, after the Japanese had massacred 100,000+ Filipino civilians in Manila.

    MacArthur knew very well what the Japanese would do and planned on rescuing as many Allied civilians as possible. He had done just that when liberating the Phillippine Islands. See the Wikipedia article on the rescue mission for the POW’s and allied civilian prisoners at Cabantuan here:

    Here is an example of the type of SIGINT decrypts of planned Japanese atrocities which motivated the decision for genocide of Japan:

    Page 573 of Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb (Houghton Mifflin (1992) by George Feifer, referring to expected Allied casualties averted by the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, states:

    “The total number must include European and Eurasian prisoners of the Japanese, chiefly from English, Dutch and other colonial and military forces. Okinawa was the most important prelude to the climax because its terrain most closely resembled the mainland’s, but non-Japanese elsewhere in Asia would have suffered even more during the new Tenozan. After the fall of Okinawa, Field Marshal Count Hisaichi Terauchi issued an order directing his prison camp officers to kill all their captives the moment the enemy invaded his southeast Asia theater. That would have been when those 200,000 British landed to retake Singapore, less than three weeks after the Japanese surrender. There was a real chance that Terauchi’s order would have been carried out, in which case up to 400,000 people would have been massacred.”

    There is no way a democratic government of the United States would not have reacted with genocidal use of poison gas on Japan, in support of an invasion, following known Japanese slaughter of all American POW”s as well as all Allied civilians the Japanese could catch.

    And Allied leaders knew in advance what the Japanese planned due to decryption of Japanese coded messages ordering the atrocities.

  • DonM

    We have had an international form of governance since the Treaty of Wesphilia. Wars continue, begun by state actors who think they can get away with it, or by non-state actors who think they can get away with it. The state by its nature is a mechanism that institutionalizes theft, enslavement, and occasional assault under color of authority.

    The solution is to make sure that no evil actor ever gets away with it. Hanging Saddam was the first time that a tyrant was tried and brought to justice by the people he had oppressed. Ever. Thank you G.W Bush. Now we can begin on the others.

  • parchellan

    Dear Professor Mead,

    A few factual corrections:–
    “As to democracy, the Athenians believe that no other form of government makes sense.”

    This is simply not so; Plato, Aristotle — and Aristophanes were very strong critics of democracy (Professor Quine, the
    logician — he was a friend, I did not study with him, was shocked at my adulation of Plato; indeed, half in jest, he called me a Platonic fascist).

    The Macedonians did not destroy Sparta;
    Epaminondas, the Theban general, did.

    Point of interest: It could be said that Athen’s — and Arthenian democracy’s, fate was sealed when it treated, Themistocles, the hero of Salamis, as it did.

    I am curious as to what your students make of the Delian dialogue (shades of
    Thrasymachus in The Republic); I know that reading that passage when I was 16 shocked me deeply.

    Respectfully, Parchellan
    (Parchellan = Middle Welsh, little pig woith nails; from a vatic poem).

    P.S. After a thought of Santayana’s which I versified:–

    Lies are the means by which we embalm
    the truth,–
    So as to make it fit to be remembered.

  • John Rylander


    Thanks for your thoughtful and helpful reply–fascinating information.

    There are some authorities who take the opposite view, though, seeing this plan (and the preparations it entailed) purely as a hypothetical in case the Japanese initiated chemical warfare in combat, as they had in China.

    E.g., the US Army Borden Institute ( has a History of Chemical Warfare that includes the following regarding US preparations for use and actual non-use during WW2 (pp. 52-53):

    President Roosevelt established a no-first-use policy for chemical weapons early in the war, which was reiterated in an official statement in 1943: “We shall under no circumstances resort to the use of
    such weapons [chemical] unless they are first used by our enemies.” 115(p6)
    The policy was backed up by a statement of warning: “Any use of gas by any axis power, therefore, will immediately be followed by the fullest possible retaliation upon munition centers, seaports and other military objectives throughout the whole extent of the territory of such axis country.”115(pp6–7)

    US plans for the final invasion of Japan, codenamed Operation Downfall, called for the invasion of Kyushu Island in the fall of 1945, followed by an invasion of the main island of Japan in the spring of 1946. Planners predicted that the attack would lead to a major chemical conflict because Japan had already used chemical weapons against China. The Army Air Force plans called for the use of persistent 100-lb bombs (mustard gas) and nonpersistent 500-lb bombs (60% phosgene, 40% cyanogen chloride). After Germany’s surrender in May 1945, the CWS
    contemplated augmenting their current arsenal of chemical bombs with captured stocks from Germany to address shortages based on required estimates for a chemical attack of Japan. Mustard gas, phosgene, and tabun were shipped back to the United States to be punched, drained, and used to fill American ordnance rounds.116 It was subsequently determined that US shells were unsuitable for tabun, but German 10.5-cm projectiles could be used in US howitzers (105-mm) with worn tubes because German shells were slightly wider than US 105-mm shells.117 In the
    end, Japan surrendered after nuclear bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and chemical warfare in the Pacific was averted.
    Although neither Germany nor Japan chose to initiate chemical warfare with the United States, the CWS spent the war training troops; designing chemical, incendiary, smoke, explosive, and flame weapons and
    protective equipment; and planning for a chemical war.

    NB that this same history points out that not all Western leaders felt this way about chemical warfare, as a memo by Churchill to his chief of staff indicated (p. 52):

    I urge you to think very seriously over the question
    of poison gas. . . . It is absurd to consider morality
    on this topic when everybody used it [gas] in the last
    war without a word of complaint from the moralists
    or the Church. On the other hand, in the last war the
    bombing of open cities was regarded as forbidden.
    Now everybody does it as a matter of course. It is
    simply a question of fashion changing as she does
    between long and short skirts for women. . . . I want
    a cold-blooded calculation made as to how it would
    pay to use poison gas. . . . One really must not be
    bound within silly conventions of the mind whether
    they be those that ruled in the last war or those in
    reverse which rule in this. . . . We could drench the
    cities of the Ruhr and many other cities in Germany
    in such a way that most of the population would be
    requiring constant medical attention. . . . It may be
    several weeks or even months before I shall ask you
    to drench Germany with poison gas, and if we do it,
    let us do it one hundred per cent. In the meantime,
    I want the matter studied in cold blood by sensible
    people and not by the particular set of psalm-singing
    uniformed defeatists which one runs across now here
    now here now there.

    I’ve not yet been able to find online the articles you helpfully mentioned, so I’ll not even begin to argue which authorities are more authoritative here.

    Thanks for the (disturbing) food for thought.

  • Steve Skubinna

    For me the Peloponnesian War is the most depressing civil war (an extraordinarily depressing variety of war). Consider Athens’ support, for strategic reasons, of various despotic states and assaults on democratic ones.

    Even worse, consider Sparta’s solicitation of financial and military support from Persia. They actually approached the power that had a generation earlier threatened the independence of all Greek states, in order to gain a ready made navy to break the Athenian control of the sea. I’m sure the Persians must have found the situation delicious.

    Eventually, as you note, it was all moot once Philip and Alexander brought the Macedonian army south. Later, the Romans rendered if even more moot, if such a thing is possible. Sadly, the phenomenon of a united and independent Greece is a modern event, only a century and a half old.

  • andrei rădulescu-banu

    “Melians: It is difficult, and you may be sure that we know it, for us to oppose your power and fortune, unless the terms be equal.
    Nevertheless we trust that the gods will give us a fortune as good as yours, because we are standing for what is right against what is wrong; and as for what we lack in power, we trust that it will be made up for by our alliance with the Spartans, who are bound, if for no other reason, then for honor’s sake, and because we are their kinsmen, to come to our help. Our confidence, therefore, is not so entirely irrational as you think.

    “Athenians. When you speak of the favor of the gods, we may as fairly hope for that as yourselves; neither our pretensions nor our conduct being in any way contrary to what men believe of the gods, or practice among themselves. Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist for ever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do. Thus, as far as the gods are concerned, we have no fear and no reason to fear that we shall be at a disadvantage. But when we come to your notion about the Lacedaemonians [Spartans], which leads you to believe that shame will make them help you, here we bless your simplicity but do not envy your folly. The Lacedaemonians, when their own interests or their country’s laws are in question, are the worthiest men alive; of their conduct towards others much might be said, but no clearer idea of it could be given than by shortly saying that of all the men we know they are most conspicuous in considering what is agreeable honorable, and what is expedient just. Such a way of thinking does not promise much for the safety which you now unreasonably count upon.”

  • Tom Holsinger

    John Rylander,

    Truman was not FDR. President Truman, as an artillery battery commander in World War One, had fired poison gas shells at the Germans and regarded them as just another variety of munition. It can be argued that this change in Presidents, alone, changed American policy towards chemical weapons use in the Pacific, but there is no doubt that a vast surge in chemical munitions shipments from the U.S. to the Pacific began in June 1945. The article you found provides pretty good evidence of that here:

    “After Germany’s surrender in May 1945, the CWS [Chemical Warfare Service] contemplated augmenting their current arsenal of chemical bombs with captured stocks from Germany to address shortages based on required estimates for a chemical attack of Japan.”

    Keep in mind that the Japanese had already used chemical weapons, many times against the Chinese, and in at least several instances against the U.S. and Britain. Imperial GHQ was concerned enough about unauthorized use of poison gas against Americans leading to disproportionate retaliation in kind, after the evacuation of Guadacanal in 1943, to order that chemical weapons stocks in the Pacific be returned to Japan.

    This order was known to have been disobeyed to at least some extent because there was sporadic use against American forces thereafter, including during the 1944-45 American liberation of the Phillipines.

  • srp

    The first third of Paul Rahe’s Republics Ancient and Modern makes a compelling case that our attempts to read Athens as an ideological precursor of the modern commercial republic are flat wrong. The Athenians, along with all other Greeks, put fighting for the glory of the polis above material gain. They, and all other Greeks, saw Sparta as the purest example of what Greeks could be. Their democratic inclinations in no way made them oppose slavery or support the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

    Anachronistic parallels do not help us understand history.

  • Tom Holsinger

    Here is a VERY interesting opinion concerning the apparent dramatic Jacksonian behavior swings between all-out force and peace. The first three paragraphs set it up and the fourth states an explanation.

    I would love to see Mr. Mead’s take on JC’s opinion here.

    “85. JC in KZ

    The backup plan for the atomics dropped on Japan was likely to be “gassing them like bugs”. As in, obliterating entire cities and any other concentration of people using the US’s extensive chemical weapons stocks. This, because the planners both realized how the Japanese would fight over the islands, and because they had the decoded orders to the remaining, far-flung army outposts which amounted to “kill everyone and everything you can find and die fighting.”

    America and the American people would have happily gone ahead, at that time, with the utter genocide of the Japanese. Why? Because they had completely dehumanized themselves in our eyes, demonstrated both the will and capability to kill Americans and those we cared for, and refused any future but their own. At the time, there were precious few options for dealing with such a people available to Truman. That he chose the most surgical approach first is, along with the dehumanized view America held of the Japanese soldiery, a testament to the paradoxically balanced yet extreme nature of American strategic thought throughout its history.

    We, Americans, when aggregated may at once be as cruel and as caring as humanly possible, and hold that tension in check until it snaps one way or another. To some it appears feckless, or erratic, or insane, that we could go literally overnight from utter, crushing devastation and murder of sworn enemies, to gently caring for their wounded and consoling them with help to rebuild.

    This kind of attitude, however, flows naturally from the scriptural underpinnings of American, and even English, civilization. An expression, that is, of the tension in God between perfect justice and perfect mercy. An unwillingness to unleash righteous obliteration until absolutely necessary because of the innocents. We, being human rather than divine, lack the perfect knowledge of how to balance our own responses, especially in the complex realm of international actions, but it’s easy to see and say that along the route to the present we have misses many many moments when “gentle” correction of one sort or another could have drawn even the Muslim world back from their in-built brink–if for a time. Jefferson understood this and put it progressively into action, for example … ”

    Note that Jacksonians are not the only grouping of Americans whose peace & war actions are based on those same scriptural underpinnings. My own Church of the Brethren (German Quaker, very much related to Amish, Mennonites & German Baptists) historically balanced its seemingly inconsistent pacifism with the need for group survival in a harsh world on such distinctions. Here is the point, and then a longer quotation, from something I wrote for the Reverend Donald Sensing years ago:

    “… The more morally confident are today called “conscientious objectors” who object to killing in war. They will use force and even kill to improve a situation when they feel it is morally justified. They just won’t kill under orders from somebody else. Each individual must make his own calls and answer on Judgment Day for mistakes.”

    “… The true roots of pacifist theology lie in individual salvation – the objection to war is not so much that war is evil but that it is evil to kill anyone who doesn’t deserve it. People should refrain from killing other people to save their own souls, not to save others or to make society better. True religious pacifists deem any killing or use of force by themselves as a mortal threat to their own souls because they might be mistaken about the moral consequences of such acts. Use of force is wrong in its own right as well as being the start of a slippery slope which might lead to killing.

    So religious pacifists won’t use any force at all, let alone kill, to save their own souls. The early history of the Brethren in America included one ghastly Indian massacre in which most of a German village in Pennsylvannia was hacked down while lined up and praying, en mass, “Gott mit uns” (God is with us) over and over. The survivors high-tailed it east to the protection of the “English” militia.

    It was a tough world. Holsingers and other Brethren came here because the penalty for refusing conscription in many German states was the murder of one’s children. My grandmother told me folk stories about 17th-18th century soldiers crying while turning baby carriages over so they wouldn’t have to look at the babies’ faces while running them through with bayonets.

    But there are ranges of opinion. The more morally confident are today called “conscientious objectors” who object to killing in war. They will use force and even kill to improve a situation when they feel it is morally justified. They just won’t kill under orders from somebody else. Each individual must make his own calls and answer on Judgment Day for mistakes.

    Indian encounters such as the one detailed above produced changes necessary for community survival, i.e., of course there were “enforcers”. Some Brethren would fight to defend their communities, or even property. There is a wonderful passage in my great-uncle Paul’s family history about young Jacob Holsinger (born in 1732 on a ship anchored off Philadelphia) doing the latter about 1750. Few Holsingers have been pacifists since. One who was ended up as the chief printer for General Clinton in New York City during the Revolution – it was the most a loyal pacifist could do for his King (I think he got 2000 or 6000 pounds compensation upon resettling in England after the war for his health). The King was the one who protected us from the Indians – few German settlers were Rebels.

    Civil War draft officials in Lancaster County, Pennsylvannia, learned the hard way about the distinction between pacifists and the 19th Century equivalent of “conscientious objectors”. Consider the term “dry gulch” used as a verb. The only way to learn which Brethren were pacifists and which weren’t was to go to church with them for twenty years …”

  • Excellent reenactment of the Melian Dialogue:

    In case you have not seen it.

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