Interviews June 2006

The American War Machine

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

Were you dealing with new documents here, new revelations that are coming out about the Cold War? How much of the information you relied on for the book has just come out recently?

I don’t claim to have done much in the way of original archival research, but I’ve read pretty much all of the historians who have done the archival research since the end of the Cold War, and there’s quite a lot that we understand now that we didn’t understand before 1989. Joseph Stalin’s intention in those early years is one of those things. It’s also very revealing to raise the question of why the Communists finally agreed to come to the truce table in Korea in 1953. Eisenhower, early on in his administration, made a not-so-veiled threat to use the atomic bomb to bring the Communists to the table, and they came to the table and he and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, concluded from that the usefulness of what they came to call atomic brinksmanship, which was part of what fueled the massive build up of the atomic and nuclear arsenal in the fifties. But post-Cold War archives suggest that a much more important factor at that very moment—although one not particularly noticed in the United States—was the death of Joseph Stalin in February of 1953, not long after Eisenhower became president. Stalin was succeeded by men who were determined to defuse what they saw as a growing and exceedingly dangerous competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. Their signals were more or less ignored in Washington. Eisenhower refused to accept the initiatives that came not only from the Soviet Union but from Winston Churchill, who was, again, prime minister of Great Britain, and wanted to take the death of Stalin as an occasion to step back from the ferocious competition, especially in nuclear weapons, that had started by then. Because Eisenhower didn’t step back, that competition really took off at that point.

The most important detail of early Cold War history that I’m aware of is the fact that the U.S. went from an atomic arsenal in 1950, consisting of about 200 weapons, to a nuclear arsenal in 1960 consisting of about 19,000 weapons, mostly hydrogen bombs. And that was an accumulation of nuclear weapons that was entirely irrational. It was generated by those realists I was talking about before, but it was incredibly unrealistic and dangerous beyond anyone’s ability to measure it. And, of course, the thing that makes it truly horrible is that 19,000 grew over the next couple of decades to something more than 60,000. Between the Soviet Union and the United States, we accumulated well in excess of 100,000 nuclear weapons. It was a madness that has yet to be reckoned with, and a danger that has yet to be reckoned with. That alone, I argue, gives the lie to the apparently cool, rational rhetoric of the so-called realists. Look what those people put in place. I give the leaders of the United States and of the Soviet Union full credit for keeping the Cold War cold. They did not have the dreaded nuclear conflagration, thank God, but some of the managers of that Cold War success, including, for example, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, are quite explicit in attributing our getting through the Cold War without nuclear war more to luck than to any successful strategy.

One of the things House of War takes note of is the way in which many, many figures who created the Cold War nuclear nightmare denounced it upon their retirement. McNamara’s a case in point. Robert Jay Lifton calls this “retirement syndrome”: men who—and they’re almost always men—construct this really quite dangerous and inhuman system of nuclear destruction, and when they resign from responsibility for it, quickly denounce it. In addition to McNamara, the most important figures who did that were George Kennan, the foreign-policy expert Paul Nitze, and most famously, of course, President Eisenhower, who, having presided over the creation of the nuclear arsenal consisting of those 19,000 weapons, on his retirement from the presidency denounced the entire system as what he called the “military-industrial complex.”

It seems like a lot of these people weren’t able to come to moral terms with what they had created until they had actually left those positions in which they’d created them. Certainly, the Pentagon as an entity has never considered the moral aspect of what’s been done with nuclear weapons.

Well, it’s true. My argument is that a momentum was generated in the Pentagon that was made up of several factors. One was the bureaucracy of the Pentagon itself; it’s this impersonal, transpersonal force that’s beyond the ability of any one human agent to control or at times even to influence—so there’s the phenomenon of a mass bureaucracy where there is very little in the way of personal responsibility. Secretary of Defense William Cohen told me that he thought of the Pentagon as Moby Dick, the great white whale, and he thought of himself as Ahab, lashed to the whale’s back by tangled harpoon lines.

That’s an interesting admission for a Secretary of Defense to make. He made that while he was Secretary of Defense?

He did. He was describing his inability to take control of this massive bureaucracy. He wasn’t being critical of it the way I am, but that’s the image he used. And I think Moby Dick is a very good image for it, a classic American image, the great white whale—a force, in Melville’s terms, of pure evil. What’s evil about the Pentagon? Not the work of the individuals there. I think that the Pentagon has been staffed over the decades by people like my father: people of good intentions, real patriots, in many cases, selfless people trying to do the right thing. But they were all at the mercy of this momentum I’ve described, partly a bureaucratic momentum, partly technological, partly the result of technologies that no one understood as they were implemented. We didn’t understand what nuclear weapons would do to us as a people when we began to accumulate them. The ways in which we control nuclear weapons are very fragile, very hard to define. We have the myth in America that the president is the one in control of the nuclear arsenal. It’s really not true.

I thought that was an interesting point. There is this strong belief that the president is the only one who can set these off, but it seems like that really isn’t the case from the way you’re describing it.

Actually, a moment’s thought reveals the falsehood of that because what the president is going to be confronted with is a recommendation from a military figure saying, “It’s time to push the button.” The president has no independent way of making an assessment of his own as to whether what’s happening is real or not. So, this notion that the “civilians” are in charge is a myth. And, of course, that’s one of the things we see being laid bare today as, more and more, we openly depend on the military to exercise power in our culture—the military taking full and complete control of the intelligence establishment, symbolized by General Hayden’s appointment as head of the CIA; the military now being invited to take control of our immigration services, symbolized by putting soldiers on the border with Mexico.  What happened here? The United States of America is at the mercy of a militarized momentum that is transcending the ability of any individual or group of individuals to master it.

The most poignant example of this that I uncovered in the work I did in this book was the story of Jimmy Carter, who came into office as president in 1976 giving a very stirring and, I would say, moving inaugural address in which he defined the main priority of his administration as getting control of the nuclear arms race and reversing it. Jimmy Carter, in his first meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told them that he wanted to get the nuclear arsenal down to 200, which was plenty of weapons to maintain deterrence. Carter had been a nuclear submarine officer. He was the only president who’d ever looked this monster in the eye up close. He was an expert on it. He knew that the accumulation of thousands upon thousands of nuclear weapons was madness, and he said he would do something about it. And do you know what happened? Four years later, he went out of office having added to the nuclear arsenal—not having brought it down at all.

That embodies the tragedy right there. Why did that happen? It wasn’t because Carter was callow or fickle or weak. It was because Carter, too, was at the mercy of this upward escalation, this momentum that would’ve gone on unchecked, I believe, except for the totally unexpected arrival on the scene of Mikhail Gorbachev. And Mikhail Gorbachev found a creative and willing partner in Ronald Reagan. Unexpectedly, Reagan, to the horror of his hawkish inner circle, and Gorbachev, to the horror of his, together cooperated in stopping the upward growth of the nuclear arsenal and, second, actually agreeing to treaties that began the arms-reduction process, which went on, then, for the next two administrations. Reagan and George H.W. Bush presided over the reduction of the American nuclear arsenal by half, which was an astounding and wonderful turn in the story. The tragedy—again, here goes that momentum—is revealed powerfully, then, when the ultimate peace president took power, William Clinton, and he presided over the elimination of almost none of the American nuclear arsenal at a time when the Soviet Union was effectively dismantling itself. By the time George W. Bush came into office, this impulse to disarm had not only lost power—it had in effect been forgotten. People in Washington no longer talk about nuclear-arms reduction.

Or maybe the public assumed it had happened.

Indeed they did. But we’re still in possession of many thousands of nuclear weapons, and many thousands more than are needed for any rational purpose. And now the Bush administration is actually taking steps to add to the nuclear arsenal again, with a new generation of nuclear weapons, which of course sets off terrible consequences in other nations. Want to understand why Tehran wants a nuclear bomb? Just examine what’s happening in Washington. The United States is becoming the nuclear proliferating nation. It’s an appalling story. But I don’t just fault the Bush Administration here. I’m not playing partisan Democratic politics. I fault the entire American system, which is headquartered at the Pentagon. It takes a pliant Congress that is enriched by the vast treasures that Congress appropriates for the Defense Department, which then make their way back to Congress in the form of lavish campaign donations from defense contractors. What Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex is of course the military-industrial-congressional-academic-labor-culture complex. An entire society now depends on the energy that’s generated in the Pentagon, and that’s really the subject of House of War.

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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