Protesters of U.S.’s war on Yugoslavia discuss ‘Why?’

New York City

Anti-imperialist activists joined March 24 with ethnic Serbs living in the United States, some of them refugees from the former republics of the former Yugoslavia that expelled Serbs, to mark the 25th anniversary of the U.S.-led NATO war on Yugoslavia. The 1999 war culminated 10 years of NATO aggression against the multinational socialist country.

Protest at United Nations headquarters in New York City on March 24, 
2024, the 25th anniversary of the U.S./NATO assault on Yugoslavia.

Some who spoke at the protest were veterans of 1999 protests of NATO’s first war in Europe. Speakers included current activists who are organizing against Israel’s genocidal war in Gaza and the U.S.-NATO war against Russia in Ukraine.

What began as an outdoor rally became an ad-hoc seminar on imperialist war. The discussion’s relevance arose from its exploring the motivation for U.S. foreign policy.

The U.S. and the Yugoslav anti-Nazi partisans were allied during World War II. Washington had friendly relations with Yugoslavia for decades. “Why did the U.S. attack us?” some asked.

Others answered by explaining the historical role of U.S. imperialism in other parts of the world, showing how this was consistent with what the U.S. did to Yugoslavia.

This discussion, though limited in time, raised questions relevant to anyone following current conflicts. This includes the war in Ukraine, the growing U.S. hostile actions and propaganda toward People’s China, the slander against Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, military maneuvers near North Korea and Washington’s full diplomatic, economic and military support for Israel’s genocidal war.

Taking steps to destroy Yugoslavia

The activists’ review of NATO’s war against Yugoslavia revealed similarities with current conflicts. Starting in 1990, the U.S. and Western European propaganda machines indoctrinated their populations to support a war of aggression against Yugoslavia.

From 1990-99, the NATO powers — with German and U.S. imperialism in the lead — took every step to weaken and destroy Yugoslavia.

From the start, following West Germany’s annexation of socialist East Germany, Berlin aided reactionary separatist forces in each republic of the multinational socialist federation of Yugoslavia, starting by recognizing the independence of Slovenia and Croatia.

German recognition propelled wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, along with the separation of Slovenia and Macedonia. Since German imperialism had the closest contacts with the Croatian and Bosnian reactionaries and the largest economic interests in the region, this initiative put German interests in the lead of seizing influence in the Balkans.

To regain hegemony over Germany and the other NATO powers, Washington pushed the conflict toward open war, where the Pentagon’s preeminent place in destructive power would predominate. The U.S. used a battle provoked by the “Kosovo Liberation Army” at the town of Račak in the Kosovo province of Serbia on Jan. 15, 1999, as a pretext. Claiming it was a massacre, the Bill Clinton administration played up the need for “humanitarian intervention.”

Clinton stepped up the drive toward war. With support from the German and French governments, and using bases in Italy, the U.S. began bombing and firing missiles at mainly civilian targets in Serbia on March 24. The bombing lasted for 78 days and killed 3,000 people. Bridges, schools and hospitals were hit, along with the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and Yugoslav television and radio studios.

Heroism in defense of Yugoslavia

Many of the residents of Serbia and Montenegro — whether Serbs, Romani, Jews or other Yugoslav peoples — showed their heroism during the 78 days of open war. They walked in open spaces and defiantly defended bridges wearing T-shirts with targets on them. Those in the military were ready to fight and camouflaged their equipment so well that the bombing destroyed very few tanks.

Parents sent their children to grandparents in the villages while carrying on their work in the major cities.

Under the pressure of the destructive bombing and even more blatant threats of invasion, the Yugoslav government finally conceded and accepted NATO’s terms. However, even the terms that both sides accepted — which included that Kosovo province remain part of Serbia — were ignored by the victorious NATO military power.

In the end, what had been a sovereign, independent and socialist Yugoslavia was turned into six weakened semicolonies of the West and the tiny U.S. military outpost called Kosovo.

Today the existence of an “independent” Kosovo is an obvious fraud, as the territory is little more than a massive military base for the U.S. and a mini-homeland for organized crime. There are still 4,800 NATO troops in Kosovo, including 570 U.S. troops.

NATO blames the victims

To add to the crimes of the imperialist powers in the Balkans, they blamed the victims of this aggressive war. The leader of the resistance to the NATO assault, Slobodan Milošević, Yugoslavia’s president from 1997 to 2000, was kidnapped and put on trial in The Hague.

In an act of individual heroism, Milošević turned the tables and put imperialism on trial. In the end, the international court was unable to prove any crimes against the Yugoslav leader. But he remained in prison, and the case ended with Milošević’s suspicious death behind bars in 2006.

Since NATO’s intervention against Yugoslavia, the U.S. has turned the alliance into a type of imperialist police force. No longer confined to Europe, NATO has become a worldwide intervention force at the service of the transnational monopolies that exploit global labor and resources.

NATO since 1999

Since this criminal war against Yugoslavia, NATO expanded its interventions, bombing Libya in Africa, occupying Afghanistan and Iraq, and promoting chaos in Syria in Asia.

NATO has expanded from 14 countries at the start of the 1999 war to 32 countries in 2024, and its aggressive moves toward Russian borders provoked the war in Ukraine. U.S. and other NATO powers, especially Germany, are the main supplier of weapons to Israel.

As the U.S. arms Israel and Ukraine for reactionary wars, and threatens war with China, people throughout the world should remember the lessons of the assault on Yugoslavia. It is no accident or mistaken policy, nor is it a policy manipulated by outside forces. The drive of U.S. imperialism to expand its exploitation of resources and workers worldwide pushes U.S. strategists to plan and carry out these wars and aggressions.

Catalinotto, a managing editor of Workers World newspaper, and Sara Flounders,  a co-director of the International Action Center and a contributing editor to WW, co-edited the book, “Hidden Agenda: U.S./NATO Takeover of Yugoslavia,” International Action Center, 2001.

John Catalinotto

John.Catalinotto@workers.org

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John Catalinotto

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