In 1935, Sinclair Lewis, author of “Babbitt” and the first American writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize, published a novel entitled “It Can’t Happen Here.”

It was written to influence the 1936 presidential election. The enormously popular ex-governor of Louisiana, Sen. Huey Long, “the Kingfish,” who campaigned to “Share the Wealth” with the people, was widely thought to be a threat to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his bid for a second term.

The Lewis novel envisioned someone like Long winning the presidency and installing an American counterpart to the fascist dictatorships already in power in Italy and Germany. Lewis was much influenced by his second wife, Dorothy Thompson, who was one of the most important syndicated political columnists of the 1930s and was greatly concerned about the possibility of populist dictatorship crossing the Atlantic.

Long was not a fascist, although he could have become a dictator. His support was from the poor. Rightist and white-supremacist forces actually formed an armed militia to oppose him, but Long was killed by an assassin, presumably with a family grievance against him, in 1935.

The man who actually opposed Roosevelt in 1936 was Republican Alf Landon of Kansas, a moderate who was defeated by Roosevelt in the greatest presidential landslide in American history. That year, FDR carried all but eight electoral votes. Sinclair Lewis’ fears had been misplaced; “It” didn’t happen here.

In 2004, Philip Roth wrote another novel on the topic. This one was about the arrival of an anti-Semitic and fascist president in the United States in 1940, in the supposed person of the aviator, American anti-war nationalist and isolationist Charles A. Lindbergh. Roosevelt’s actual opponent in 1940 was the businessman Wendell Willkie, whom he comfortably defeated with 54.7 percent of the popular vote.

Lindbergh never retracted his opposition to U.S. entry into the European war, and following Pearl Harbor President Roosevelt refused ex-Col. Lindbergh’s effort to rejoin the military. Lindbergh found experimental and consultant work in the aviation industry, helped develop the Vought Corsair, the only American fighter in the Pacific war superior to the Japanese Zero, and despite remaining a civilian flew 36 combat missions in the Pacific. Once again, “It” had not happened in the United States.

When “It” did happen was in 2001-2008, in the George W. Bush administration. There was a takeover of the government by a self-willed executive power, unprecedented in American history. The president and vice president acted on a novel and legally unsupported claim to unlimited “wartime” presidential and executive-branch power. The justification was an illegal, undeclared war.

International law and American treaty obligations were defied, as were established American law on the conduct of war and the treatment of prisoners, constitutional protections, and the surveillance of citizens.

All of this occurred without meeting serious, or at least successful, congressional or judicial challenge, with little or no objection from the national press, and all but unanimous support from the national audiovisual media. One needn’t go through all that again.

There were unsuccessful efforts by individuals inside and outside the government to overturn this state of affairs, but in two congressional elections, and in the presidential election of 2004, the electorate endorsed all that had been done. “It,” which Sinclair Lewis and Philip Roth had both warned against, proved in fact to be very popular. At least this was so until 2008, when the practical and political consequences of this abandonment of law and history finally alienated the electorate.

All that is familiar. What concerns me in this article is something else. It is the fact that the mass of agents and officials of the government, and the vast majority of the population, passively accepted what was done, and even today disputes whether anyone should be held accountable.

President Obama’s unwillingness to see his first term dominated by the crimes of the Bush administration is comprehensible.

Yet there is a limit. The latest case of the human moral vacuum created and encouraged during the Bush years is so outrageous, perverse, sadistic and nihilistic that it demands attention, for all that it tells us about the rest that has happened. I speak of the ordered, authorized and conscientiously supervised waterboarding of two prisoners 266 times.

The men who authorized, ordered and performed such acts should be hanged. It is as simple as that.

It then would be possible to face the future with a response to the question, “Can It Happen Here?”

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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