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U.S. has turned the tables on its old Declaration

by Hiroaki Sato

On Independence Day (July 4), The New York Times printed the Declaration of Independence, as it had done — the daily noted in an article on the preceding day — for 90 years, since 1922.

What the announcement the day before did was tell the reader that this year’s printing would be “accompanied for the first time by a transcription, set in the Imperial typeface, following the capitalization, punctuation and spelling of the original” (“A Clear Declaration of Intent Is Now Even Clearer,” July 3, 2012).

That was a good thing to do. Since I began noticing the Declaration printed on the back page of the front section of the Times decades ago, I had wondered: Who would ever read — who could ever read — the facsimile of the handwritten document, however beautiful the penmanship?

Still, I was touched when I learned, in the Times’ long obituary on Ho Chi Minh, that Ho’s idea for independence came from the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Checking the matter now on the Internet, I see that the Vietnamese leader indeed began his declaration of independence thus:

“‘All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’ This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776.”

Ho, who died on Sept. 2, 1969, had made the declaration exactly 24 years earlier, on Sept. 2, 1945 — the day Japan signed the instrument of surrender on Tokyo Bay, with Gen. Douglas MacArthur presiding as Supreme Commander for Allied Powers. Vietnam was one of the countries Japan had ravaged in the name of a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.

The Times reference to the source of Ho Chi Minh’s inspiration was timely and provocative. The Vietnam War still raged. Nonetheless, for some years now I have wondered about the “intent” of the Times printing the Declaration every Independence Day.

Yes, the document begins with lofty sentiments expressed in “stirring” fashion, as the daily said in explaining its annual printing. But the opening sentence itself, however sweeping and true, contains a phrase that would give it a reverse notoriety, as it were, in U.S. history: “separate and equal.” In Plessy v. Fergusson, the Supreme Court declared the Louisiana statute strictly separating “white and colored races” constitutional. The 1896 decision created the “separate but equal” doctrine. Justice John Marshall Harlan indignantly dissented, but the majority paid no “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”

But most of the troublesome aspects of the Declaration come in the section that makes up the bulk of the document: the itemized grievances against Great Britain’s King George III. There, what the United States has and continues to do are the mirror image of some of those grievances.

To start, the Declaration accused George III of “obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners [and] refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither.” The U.S. history of immigration is studded with obstructions and refusals. More recently, this country started to build barriers along the U.S.-Mexican border. Talk of adding insult to injury.

George III “has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures,” the Declaration said. This the U.S. has done countless times in foreign countries. When it seeks legislative consent, its overpowering status necessarily puts the country concerned under duress.

Then there are these grievances: rendering “the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power”; imposing “a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws”; “quartering large bodies of armed troops among us”; and “protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States.” The last item is particularly telling. The U.S. doesn’t even bother with a mock trial in the country concerned. It sweeps the murderers back home.

And when they effect trials here, they are mostly shams, however authentic the legal façade they set up may appear.

The Declaration accused George III of “cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world.” The United States has deployed sanctions against many countries. At the moment the country that is suffering the most as a result is Iran. And Nicholas Kristof, the Times’ own columnist who flaunts his concern for human rights, exults in the “prodigious economic pain” the act inflicts. (See, for example, his June 16 column, “Pinched and Griping in Iran.”)

The Declaration accused George III of “transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences.” Read “tried” to mean “subject to great strain or hardship,” and the grievance precisely describes the CIA’s “renditions.”

The Declaration accused George III of “transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny” that were “totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.” The United States today does the same thing routinely, as vaunted standard-bearer of democracy.

In short, the United States has busily created the very grievances it enumerated against a foreign tyrant in its Declaration of Independence.

No, not many countries live up to their own ideals, especially when they are ostentatious about them. Ho Chi Minh declared independence from France, the country that had exploited Vietnam for 80 years. Ho enumerated the crimes the imperialist power committed.

But France, once the hotbed of Enlightenment that spawned ideas like human rights, would not hear of it. It furiously trampled upon its own creeds. That led to a horrendous war, with the United States as the most destructive force in the end.

In 1969, William O. Douglas wrote: “We must realize that today’s Establishment is the new George III. Whether it will continue to adhere to his tactics, we do not know. If it does, the redress, honored in tradition, is also revolution.”

The Declaration famously says: “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends” — that is, achieving “certain unalienable Rights” that Ho Chin Minh quoted — “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”

But how many Americans have come to grief by merely suggesting this very idea since then? In today’s milieu, what would happen to a Supreme Court justice for saying anything like this?

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York. His biography of Yukio Mishima, with Naoki Inose, “Persona,” will appear in the fall.