||Issue No. 144||12 July 2002|
The Lotto Economy
Interview: Capital in Crisis
Industrial: No Sweat
Bad Boss: Super Spam
History: Living Treasures
International: Axis of Evil
Solidarity: Pride of Place
Technology: The Art of Cyber-Unionism
Poetry: The Masochism Tango
Satire: Foxtel-Optus Merger 'Anti-Repetitive'
Review: Bob Carr's Thoughtlines
The Locker Room
Week in Review
Axis of Evil
The template for it was created way back in 1917 when the United States entered World War I in response to an earlier three-headed Axis of Evil. Despite its instinctive isolationism, pro-war unity was achieved in ragtime America when Germany, Japan and Mexico seemed to be about to violate its sacred soil.
The events of 1917 are a classic example of presidential politics at work. Befitting their significance, they are well covered in the American writer Barbara Tuchman's classic 1959 book The Zimmermann Telegram. Now lately and happily republished, it is an all too timely work. It is essential reading for anyone interested in the provenance of the war on terror.
Tuchman's wartime presidential protagonist is Woodrow Wilson. Though a high-minded domestic reformer, Wilson as a Democrat politician was an acquired taste. He became president in 1912 because of a split in the Republican Party. His reelection was determined, Bush-like, by voters in a single sunny state (California).
Wilson was narrowly reelected because he had kept America out of the murderous European war. But in April 1917 he was transformed into an international caped crusader and world saviour who was bent on waging war against war.
Tuchman shows how this change in direction resulted from the stalemate on the Western Front. Germany, in desperation, was forced to contemplate the use of unrestricted submarine warfare. The danger was that this strategy would drive neutral America into the Allied camp.
Needing to create a diversion, Germany dreamt up an imaginative scenario beginning with a hoped for pact with Mexico, the victim of many an American land grab. Texas, Arizona and New Mexico were offered as bait. The third member of this projected alliance was to be Japan, long irked by racist policies in America. If threatened from the south and west, America would not be able to fight in France.
In Berlin Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann sent a telegram setting out this bold strategy to Germany's Ambassador in Mexico. This was a fatal step because Western intelligence, though far smaller, was much more effective in 1917 than in 2001. The British, having broken into the German codes, decoded the telegram. It was released to the media and, once verified, aroused furious indignation in America.
America was all too willing to believe that Japan planned to colonise its Pacific coast and take over the Panama Canal. Mexico was another stressor. It was the Afghanistan of 1917, great power interference fuelling local nationalist irritation. Threats to America's interests, including access to oil, had already inspired a military expedition to hunt down the obligatory elusive and exotic villain (Pancho Villa).
Zimmermann was a diplomatic dud. His telegram created unanimity in America where it had not existed before. Its midwestern heartland, in particular, was deeply isolationist. Milwaukee and Minneapolis did not much care what happened on the Atlantic Ocean. It took the Zimmerman telegram, which envisaged a direct Prussian-led threat to its territorial integrity, to unite the United States.
Faced with American rage, Mexico swiftly reaffirmed its neutrality but the war with Germany which followed had far reaching consequences. Intolerance and anxiety gripped the United States during the Wilson presidency and beyond, leading to restrictions on immigration, an anti-Bolshevik "Red Scare" orchestrated by a young J Edgar Hoover and Attorney-General Mitchell Palmer (the John Ashcroft of the silent movie era) and inspiring the rejuvenation of the Ku Klux Klan.
1917 was the matrix for all later three-headed axes of evil. In 1940 the tripartite Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis was proclaimed. There was no coordinated plan among its members yet they undoubtedly embodied evil and broke the taboo, dating back to George Washington, on a third presidential term.
Anxiety generated by conjuring up of the factitious threesome of Iran, Iraq and North Korea could also do wonders for President Bush's longevity. It has the capacity to keep him in office until 2009. A second term was something that the first President Bush, having refused to convert the 1991 Gulf War into a full act of exorcism, failed to achieve.
His son is keen to learn from history and we should follow his example as well. Uncovering the original format of the Axis of Evil, as revealed in The Zimmermann Telegram, makes its intimate association with modern US presidential politics all too evident.
Barbara Tuchman, The Zimmermann Telegram, Phoenix Press, RRP $24.95
Stephen Holt = Canberra author
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