Interviews June 2006

The American War Machine

James Carroll, the author of House of War, on the inexorable momentum of the Pentagon.
book cover

House of War [Click the title
to buy this book]

by James Carroll
Houghton Mifflin
672 pages

As a young boy, James Carroll saw the Pentagon as his playhouse—“the largest playhouse in the world.” While his father worked late, as a high-ranking intelligence official in the Air Force, Carroll would roam the empty corridors, sliding down the ramps connecting the building’s five concentric rings; running from water fountain to water fountain, drinking from as many as he could; examining the war memorabilia tucked in various corners; and getting lost in the labyrinthine vastness. Later on, as a seminarian and peace protester, the building came to mean something quite different to him: it was the brain center of the hated Vietnam War, and, even more ominous, of the nuclear madness that threatened the human race. In House of War, a book that is part history, part memoir, and part polemic, Carroll sets out to tell the story of “the Building”—a sprawling bureaucracy, Carroll argues, that is not only more powerful than the civilians who would seek to contain it, but that has “apparently broken loose from the constraints of human will.”

Carroll’s narrative opens in January 1943 with the dedication of the Pentagon. That very same week, Franklin D. Roosevelt announced that the Allied goal in World War II would be the unconditional surrender of the Axis forces, the government established the nuclear laboratory at Los Alamos, and the Air Force okayed the first bombing runs against German cities—reversing its policy against targeting civilians. “These three events,” Carroll writes, “were the beginning of a new American spirit of total war that culminated not only in the total destruction of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, but also, ultimately, in the Cold War doctrines of massive retaliation and mutual assured destruction.” Even before World War II was over, Carroll argues, the leaders of the Pentagon viewed Russia as the new enemy and nuclear weapons as the tool of choice to use against it. In Carroll’s telling, the United States was primarily to blame for the Cold War’s dramatic escalation, because our government consistently ignored signals that Moscow was willing to step back from the conflict. The fact is, he writes, the Cold War was convenient, first because it could be used by the Army, Navy, and Air Force to justify competing and ever-higher defense expenditures, and later because it came to serve as the economic engine of the country—the “military-industrial-congressional-academic-labor-culture” complex of which Eisenhower warned. Carroll argues that every president who has come into office determined to sap the power of the Pentagon has instead been defeated by it. And now, even though the Cold War is over, our defense establishment continues to expand—as we build more nuclear weapons and turn to a doctrine of preventive war. “The Pentagon, world capital of a twenty-first century Pax Americana that assume[s], like Thucydides, the permanence of war,” he writes, “at last [has] a function worthy of its monumentality.”

James Carroll is the author of ten novels, including Mortal Friends and Secret Father. He is also the author of the best-selling Constantine’s Sword and American Requiem, which won the 1996 National Book Award. He lives in Boston with his wife, the novelist Alexandra Marshall.

We spoke by phone in May.

Katie Bacon


James Carroll
James Carroll

It seems to me that your book challenges a lot of received wisdom we have about the past sixty years, and that people may have a strong reaction to your depiction of the United States as more blameworthy in the Cold War than Russia was, or to your strong criticisms of our actions during World War II. Have you thought about how people are going to react to the book?

Well, I think there’s a large misconception in the American consensus that I see myself challenging. It’s the dichotomy between what’s called “realism” and, if you want to be pejorative, “soft idealism” or “moralism” or “pacifism.” The conventional wisdom, certainly the established narrative of the American post-Cold War and post-World War II story, is that the realists were right and the others were wrong. I think this whole notion is wrong-headed. What’s described as realism was a wild misperception of the reality that the United States was faced with from the beginning to the end of the Cold War. In the beginning of the Cold War, realists, typified at that point by George Kennan, saw the Soviet Union as a mystical totalitarian threat that was a challenge to the United States all over the globe. It turned out to be a wildly exaggerated notion of how threatened we were by the Soviet Union, and even George Kennan moved away from that perception.

The Soviet Union in 1947, 1948, and into 1949 was simply not the threat that American foreign-policy makers imagined it to be. At the other end of the Cold War, the realists were insisting that Mikhail Gorbachev was just another trickster Russian—we couldn’t trust him, his perestroika and glasnost were going to be a Russian trick, a Russian deception. And, of course, those realists, typified by, say, Casper Weinberger or Jeane Kirkpatrick, were entirely wrong about Gorbachev. The realists today have taken us into the Iraq War, another example of a wild misperception of what actually threatened the United States. My book challenges this dichotomy between realism and idealism. It’s true that I’m able to be categorized as—well, what’s the pejorative word?—a “peacenik.” But I would argue that the peaceniks, especially in the later years of the Cold War, got it right about how the Cold War might end. The realists got it wrong. So, that’s the largest challenge to the conventional narrative that I’m aware of. Of course, I expect the defenders of the realist position to take strident offense at House of War.

Why were the realists looking for an enemy after World War II? You’d think people would have taken a deep breath and said, “Okay, we defeated Germany, now we can relax a bit.”

You would. That was Truman’s impulse.  He ordered a radical demobilization of the American military immediately at the end of World War II. I explain in House of War that the most important thing that empowered this kind of political paranoia was the budgetary competition between the United States Air Force, newly established in 1947, and the United States Navy, both vying for a shrinking military budget and especially vying for control of the new atomic bomb. The weapon they used in their contests with each other was to exaggerate the threat from the Soviet Union. The United States Air Force could make its case for a new fleet of intercontinental bombers by exaggerating the threat from Moscow. Similarly with the Navy. That contest basically resulted in the creation of massive forces that were far in excess of what was actually needed at the time. The most fateful consequence, of course, was that those people who wanted to maintain a monopoly on the atomic bomb were empowered by this intraservice rivalry. In the late forties, the United States should have been seriously pursuing international structures of control for the atomic bomb, and we didn’t. We chose to imagine that we could maintain an indefinite monopoly on the bomb—a belief that was based on faulty intelligence, a faulty assessment of the Soviet capacity to build a bomb of their own. In fact, the Russians exploded an atomic bomb in May of 1949. It was only then that the Soviets posed a major new threat to us. By then, the Soviets were responding to what they had seen coming from us. They had seen, first of all, not only that we had the bomb, but that we were prepared to use it. Joseph Stalin was a monstrous tyrant, but there’s absolutely no reason to believe that he would have madly pursued a strategic nuclear arsenal of the sort that he eventually went for if he wasn’t stimulated to do so by what he saw happening in the United States. That’s the second point that I make in this book, one that is no doubt controversial. I lay out the debate of historians on this question, and it’s a serious debate—much more serious than most Americans realize.

About what Stalin would have done?

About, really, what the origins were of the Cold War. And to what extent American fears of Soviet imperial reach exaggerated what was real and, therefore, in effect became self-fulfilling prophecies. I accept the reading of the Cold War by historians sometimes called “revisionists,” who see American responsibility for the onset of the Cold War as much more significant than traditionalists do. Traditionally, we’ve talked about the Soviet moves against Eastern Europe and Asia as if they were completely unjustified, far in excess of normal security reach, and representing a kind of quasi-religious, global totalitarian ambition to take over the world. I accept the reading of historians who think that the moves that Moscow was making at that point were much more properly understood as normal defensive postures, attempts to shore up its security border in Eastern Europe and to the east with China. So it was our wildly overblown perception of what their aims were that led us to mistake what was really a civil war between two factions in Korea as a global conflict orchestrated in Moscow. Post-Cold War archives reveal that that overblown view was simply wrong. Moscow was not calling the shots when North Korea invaded South Korea. Similarly, we misread the meaning of the revolution in Vietnam, seeing Ho Chi Minh as a puppet of Moscow when he was no such thing. We went to war in Vietnam to oppose Soviet communism. Well, the Vietnamese were not tools of the Soviets, much less of the Chinese. We also saw Ho Chi Minh as a puppet of Beijing when, of course, the ancient enemy of Vietnam has always been China. We had an inability to perceive the fissures among the various nations on the other side of the Iron Curtain: we missed the meaning of Tito’s break in Yugoslavia, we missed the meaning of the Chinese break with Moscow, we missed the meaning of the traditional enmity between the Vietnamese and the Chinese.  All of those mistakes were the result of this global paranoia that was put in place at the end of the 1940s. So, that’s my perception, I’m clear about it, and you’re right to indicate that these are controversial assertions to this day. This is unfinished history. History has not made final judgments on these questions, and if my book can move the arcane debates of a small group of historians to a broader public, that alone will be a good thing.

Presented by

Katie Bacon, formerly the executive editor of The Atlantic Online, is now a freelance editor and writer living outside of Boston.

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