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Seven Genocides That Presidents REFUSED to Stop by Al Carroll
On the twentieth anniversary of genocide in Rwanda, many Americans do not realize that there were seven genocides that nine US presidents refused to halt. Atrocities can be stopped, but it takes either a humanitarian president or public.
It has been twenty years since the Rwandan genocide, and most articles about it will discuss Bill Clinton failing to stop these atrocities. The more honest articles will state the truth, that Clinton made a deliberate choice to turn a blind eye. Clinton, to his credit, has apologized, even though his apologies seem insincere, not contrite, rote, and by the numbers.
These articles about a president's or the American nation's failure to do anything often bring some hand wringing, as do all occasions marking anniversaries of atrocities. Surely, we ask, we have learned? Surely the world's conscience is now awakened?
In my book, Presidents' Body Counts, I note this has happened seven times before. Clinton was not the first American president to refuse to stop genocide going on right before his eyes. Nine different president let genocide happen, and three of them ignored a genocide happening right here in America, in California.
Yet chances are not one American in fifty even knows there was a genocide against California Indians, or any of the other genocides besides the Holocaust and Rwanda. We as a nation need to know about these genocides see how these atrocities were allowed to happen, to prevent this from happening again.
Of the genocides ignored by US Presidents, these are the body counts ranked from highest to lowest:
Franklin Roosevelt and the Holocaust-12 million dead.
Nixon and Genocide in Bangladesh- Up to 3 million dead.
Clinton and Rwandan Genocide- 800,000 dead.
Polk, Fillmore, Buchanan and California Indian Genocide- Up to 300,000 dead.
Ford and East Timor Genocide- 200,000 dead.
Jefferson and the Haitian Revolution- 170,000 dead.
Nixon's betrayal of the Kurds, later leading to genocide-100,000 deaths.
In order chronologically, each of these presidents failed to stop or limit genocide when they could have, quite easily:
Jefferson and the Haitian Revolution
Haitian slaves revolted against French slave owners. Napoleon tried to crush the revolution with extreme brutality, planning to either kill or terrorize into submission every last Black slave. The French army burned alive numerous captured slaves, hung, drowned, or tore them apart with specially trained French hunting dogs. It took more than a decade of enormously brave and determined Haitians to defeat the French, at great cost.
Jefferson ignoring genocide against Haitians was all the more appalling because he spent so much of his career fighting against the slave trade. To reassure nervous American slave owners who thought slave uprisings might spread, Jefferson tried to isolate Haiti from the rest of the world, diplomatically and economically. Earlier as Secretary of State, he even sent money and weapons to the French slave owners.
Polk, Fillmore, Buchanan and Genocide Against California Indians
This is a genocide far too few Americans know much about. But every American should. Californians especially should know their state was founded in blood. The California Indian population was from 180,000 to 300,000 at the time the US conquered California, taking it and the rest of the southwest in a brutal war with Mexico that US President James Polk deliberately provoked so that he could expand slavery and acquire more slave states for the US.
This was a genocide mostly carried out by vigilante militias, not the military. Anglo-American miners did their best to exterminate every last California Indian with “Indian hunting” expeditions. California's state government paid big bounties for Native scalps. California legalized the enslavement of Indians, and Native slaves actually did much of the mining during the Gold Rush. The city of Los Angeles even auctioned off Indians in the city jails to be sold as slaves.
Unlike the other genocides on this list, this one took place entirely in the US. Thus three US Presidents deliberately ignored genocide they could have entirely prevented. First, Polk made the genocide possible by the conquest of the southwest. Then Fillmore sent commissioners who wrote treaties seizing over nine tenths of all Native lands. Buchanan went even further, seizing all but 40 square miles of Native land out of a state with over 160,000 square miles. The US Army and racist vigilantes forced California Indians onto the tiny reservations, where they continued to be kidnapped and sold into slavery. Most Native fled the reservations and hid in remote areas.
This genocide and mass enslavement did not end until 1863, when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Though aimed at freeing Black slaves and defeating the Confederacy, emancipation freed the surviving American Indian slaves. Lincoln's Indian commissioner, for the first time, used the federal government to end the kidnapping of Natives for slavery. When the California state government tried to keep enslaving Natives by debt peonage, the Indian commissioner blocked that also. This is an act equally as noble as emancipating Black slaves that too few Americans know about.
Franklin Roosevelt and the Holocaust
Today one would have to be very ignorant or in denial to not know about the deaths of six million Jews under the Nazis, or the six million others also killed, Romany, Poles, gays, the handicapped, Jehovah's Witnesses, and political prisoners and criminals. But very few of the American public knew about the Holocaust while it was going on. Yet those at the top in FDR's administration cannot claim they did not know. By November 1943, top government officials had extensive reports.
FDR could have bombed railroad lines, bridges, and depots taking Jews and others to the death camps. Roosevelt also could have offered refuge to those fleeing. Finally he could have publicly vowed to charge the killers with war crimes. Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg did just that, and saved the Jewish ghetto of Budapest. While FDR could not have stopped the Holocaust entirely, he could have saved perhaps one tenth, or 1.2 million lives. Sadly, Roosevelt chose to listen to generals who urged him to avoid using any military resources to save Jewish lives.
Nixon and Genocide in Bangladesh
This is a relatively recent genocide, taking place within the lifetime of many reading this, that almost no Americans know about. When East Pakistan tried to break away from West Pakistan in 1971, up to 3 million Bangladeshis were killed by the brutal military dictator General Aga Yaya Khan. Khan's soldiers and paramilitaries targeted students and religious centers, and also raped over 400,000 women and girls.
But Nixon refused to intervene, in part because he had a deep racist hatred of Indians. “Indians are cunning, traitorous people,” he said. Nixon also deeply admired General Khan for his anti-Communism, and told him he understood why Khan carried out genocide. “I understand the anguish you must have felt in making the difficult decisions you have faced.”
Nixon was given full details of the atrocities by US Ambassador Kenneth Keating and Consul Arthur Blood. For this, both diplomats were called “traitors” by Nixon and Kissinger, and Blood was recalled from his post. For Nixon wanted Khan to be an intermediary for him to Communist China. While Nixon's opening to China is often cited as his greatest accomplishment, many don't realize it was achieved in blood, by ignoring outright genocide.
This genocide was finally brought to an end by Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sending the Indian Army to defeat Pakistani troops. Nixon tried to block the end of this genocide, and sent a nuclear armed aircraft carrier to threaten India. The Soviets responded by sending their own nuclear armed ships. So Nixon not only ignored this genocide, he risked an outright nuclear war to try to prevent it from being stopped.
Nixon's Betrayal of the Kurds
Nixon and Kissinger have the most innocent blood on their hands of any US President and Secretary of State. In 1973, the two encouraged Kurds to rebel against the Iraqi government, supplying them with arms. Nixon did so because he wanted to use the Kurd rebels as a bargaining chip. His ally the Shah of Iran wanted a piece of Iraqi territory. Once Iraq gave up the territory, Nixon betrayed his Kurdish allies. They were left without any more US weapons or funds. Over 3,000 were killed. Nixon even refused to allow any Kurds to come to the US as refugees.
This betrayal was the first step leading to the infamous genocide done against Kurds by Saddam Hussein. For the next decade and a half, the Kurds suffered repression, violence, and even poison gas attacks, launched by helicopters bought from the US and with gas that had been manufactured with equipment bought from US companies. The US would not take the Kurdish side until George Bush Sr. sent US troops to protect Kurds from Saddam Hussein's army after the Gulf War.
Ford and East Timor
Most of the few Americans aware of East Timor genocide know about it because of one man, anarchist activist Noam Chomsky. Chomsky tells the story of Timorese genocide to show how the US media ignores genocide when done by an American ally, the brutal dictatorship of General Suharto of Indonesia.
East Timor is a small island next to the huge nation of Indonesia. Suharto launched an invasion to conquer East Timor, but not before asking permission from US President Gerald Ford during a state visit. Ford asked and got a two day delay from Suharto, so Ford would not publicly appear to be endorsing the genocide.
Ford continued to sell weapons to Suharto and Indonesia, the weapons used to kill over 200,000 Timorese, forcing them into concentration camps where most perished from disease and starvation. Had Ford or any other US President ordered an arms embargo and offered refuge, perhaps one tenth of the Timorese could have been saved. East Timor did not gain its freedom until two decades later, thanks to the fall of Suharto and international pressure forcing Indonesian troops out.
Clinton and Rwandan Genocide
To this day, the reasons why the US did not intervene in Rwanda, while it did in Bosnia, are disturbing. Rwandans are Black Africans, while Bosnians are white Europeans. Bosnia was not far from central Europe, while few Americans knew anything about Rwanda.
What is most disturbing is how easily these atrocities could be stopped. This was a low technology genocide. Up to 800,000 Rwandans were killed using mostly machetes, spears, even farming tools. Only one out of six deaths were by guns. The Rwandan army and paramilitaries could easily be defeated by as little as 5,000 troops. Sending in troops two weeks after the start of genocide could have saved three quarters of them. Even Clinton admitted at least 300,000 Rwandans could have been saved had he sent troops in a few months after genocide began.
Clinton, and most of the world, knew this genocide was happening. It was regularly on the evening news, and Clinton was warned of genocide breaking out before it happened by US embassies and intelligence agencies. Clinton was even personally visited by a Rwandan activists begging him to intervene.
Instead, Clinton officials refused to admit genocide was going on. His administration went one step further and pressured to the UN to stay out, and for all other nations to withdraw their troops. The genocide finally ended because a rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, overthrew the government. Today Rwanda has remarkably recovered, using traditional justice to punish those guilty.
Clinton is the only president to ever admit his wrongdoing in not stopping a genocide. Nixon never admitted to ignoring two genocides. Jefferson stayed quiet about Haiti because he feared public exposure of his relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings. Polk, Fillmore, and Buchanan were all deeply bigoted men with contempt for Native people. Roosevelt made the mistake of deferring to his generals and anti Semites in the State Department. Ford's reason for ignoring genocide was anti Communism, though East Timor was not in danger of becoming Communist. Timorese leaders were devout Catholics.
But to point out that many of our presidents deliberately chose to ignore genocides does not mean these atrocities could not have been stopped. Several presidents did act. Jefferson did ban the international slave trade in the US. Lincoln did end the enslavement of both Blacks and California Indians. Grant greatly reduced warfare between the US and Native tribes with his Peace Policy. George Bush Sr. kept Saddam Hussein from slaughtering Kurds.
The key in all cases was a mix of humanitarian motives and public pressure. Jefferson, Lincoln, and Grant all strongly believed in what they were doing, but abolitionists backed their efforts too. But Bush Sr. had no humanitarian motive. The public demanded he act because television cameras were there showing Kurds dying. Public pressure also kept Obama from bombing Syria recently. The lesson is clear: Americans must both elect humanitarians to office, and keep vigilant and press them for action to stop genocides from happening again. The US is a nation founded on two genocides, against American Indians and Africans. It has a moral obligation to stop mass slaughter.
Al Carroll is Assistant Professor of History at Northern Virginia Community College and the author of Presidents' Body Counts: The Twelve Worst and Four Best American Presidents Based on How Many Lived or Died Because of Their Actions.