Maddow Guest Greenwald's Curious Recounting of 'External Threats'

Salon.com blogger and author Glenn Greenwald is unlikely to become a fan of former Vice President Dick Cheney, safe to say.

But Greenwald's loathing for Cheney occasionally gets the better of him, as occurred on MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show" Wednesday night.

Maddow and Greenwald were discussing news of Cheney warning that President Obama risks letting terrorists strike with a biological or nuclear weapon if Obama reverses Bush-era policies for combating al Qaeda.

Greenwald compared protective measures ordered by Bush and Cheney after 9/11 to the worst civil liberties abuses in our nation's past (follow this link for video of the segment) --

And I think what's so vital to point out is that if you look at American history, the most disgraceful and regrettable acts, the acts that most people consider to be quite awful that we've done in our history, haven't been because we've been insufficiently aggressive about dealing with external threats, it's been the opposite, because we've allowed the government to exaggerate external threats and drive us to embrace very radical overreactions, whether it's the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II or the McCarthyite witch hunts of the 1950s or the censorship laws in the late 18th century or even at the end of World War I, it's Dick Cheney fear-mongering that has driven us to do the things that we end up regret doing and it's the responsibility of the citizenry not to let a government do that.

In other words, with Greenwald's first example above in mind, the United States had been sufficiently "aggressive" in thwarting "external threats" when President Franklin Roosevelt rounded up Japanese-Americans? At least this is what I think Greenwald is saying, as I cut my way through the thicket of his lawyerly discourse.

But as Greenwald is surely aware, Executive Order 9,066 mandating the internment was signed by FDR in February 1942 -- only the three months after the sudden Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor and an ill-prepared United States became a combatant in World War II.

To suggest the US was sufficiently "aggressive" in defending itself from "external threats" in late 1941 is preposterous. Looking back at what occurred between Pearl Harbor and Roosevelt's executive order shows how preposterous.

Within days of decimating the US Pacific Fleet at Oahu, Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong, the Philippines, Guam and Wake Island. On Dec. 10, Japanese warplanes sank the new British battleship Prince of Wales and battlecruiser Repulse in two hours ("In all the war," Churchill later wrote, "I never received a more direct shock").

That same day, Japanese forces landed in Malaya and the Philippines. By Christmas, the British at Hong Kong had fallen, Guam and Wake Island were lost, and Japanese forces were advancing toward Singapore, with its immense harbor situated astride one of the most strategic shipping lanes in the world.

On Feb. 15, the British surrendered Singapore and 130,000 troops were taken captive, the single most catastrophic defeat in British history. In the Philippines, American and Filipino forces held out a few months longer. Tens of thousands eventually perished in Japanese captivity from wounds, abuse and neglect.

Most of what I've described occurred between Pearl Harbor and Roosevelt ordering the internment of Japanese-Americans.This was the chilling context in which FDR made his decision. And according to Greenwald, not only had the US been sufficiently "aggressive" in countering "external threats," Roosevelt's government also chose to "exaggerate" the threat from Japan. Which leads to an inevitable question -- how would it be possible to exaggerate a succession of such devastating news?

And Greenwald is stating this in the context of his criticism of Bush-Cheney policies in the War on Terror, implying here as well that the US was sufficiently "aggressive" in countering "external threats" leading up to the cataclysm that gave rise to these policies -- 9/11.

For Greenwald, in other words, it is only acceptable for the United States to become sufficiently aggressive toward external threats after we've been attacked. Bush and Cheney, on the other hand, don't have to get sucker-punched more than once to appreciate the need for avoiding this to begin with.

Maddow presumably doesn't part company with Greenwald over whether the US was sufficiently vigilant against external threats prior to Pearl Harbor and 9/11, since she didn't challenge him on it. And her introduction of Greenwald could hardly have been more appropriate, considering what he was about to say. After playing clips of Cheney's remarks, Maddow repeatedly took megaphone in hand and pronounced in mock terror,"They will slaughter us all!"

Where have I seen this before, I wondered. Then it came to me -- back in 2000, the September-October issue of Mother Jones magazine and its cover story, "The Phantom Menace." And the external threat Mother Jones was confident did not exist? "A doomsday attack by foreign terrorists."

Jack Coleman
Jack Coleman
Ex-liberal from People's Republic of Massachusetts