An End to Intervention

by Gar Alperovitz

Broadly speaking, I think two basic alternatives are open to the new Secretary of Defense: he could choose, first, to follow Mr. McNamara’s example. McNamara started with apparent command. He seemed to achieve civilian control over the military. But his concept of flexible response and increased options, I believe, gave the military a new lease on power. It did so by blasting huge holes in the hold-the-iine conservative theories with which President Eisenhower held back the defense budget and the military-industrial complex.

Ultimately, I think, it can be shown that his approach did not strengthen civilian control, but instead, produced a horrible fusion of McNamara theory and Parkinson’s Law.

“Parknamara’s Law” has, in fact, been established in Vietnam beyond question: “ The more you increase the options and guns available, the more someone will find reason to use them; the more you use the options, the more your response becomes inflexibly military; the more you become inflexibly military, the more you lose your options.”

The alternative approach the Secretary should consider, I think, is to make some fundamental judgments about power and politics quite different from Mr. McNamara’s. I would begin with judgments not about how many military options we can achieve (there is no theoretical limit), but at the other end of the problem: if we decide what our global policy should be first, the question of military options can be rationally appraised.

Starting with first things first leads to a realization that the most important judgment is, quite simply, that America has reached the practical (if not the theoretical) limit of its ability substantially to control revolutions abroad. A CIA move here, a small troop landing there are still feasible. But the potential costs of a Cuban invasion and the actual cost of Vietnam have proved that it is unwise to compete in serious guerrilla warfare.

The conclusion is that it would be a mistake to advise intervention anymore. We should recognize with De Gaulle that it is nonsense to believe revolutions must be a threat. French policy in Algeria suggests that in practice, despite their rhetoric, the revolutionaries have little desire to be controlled by “international Communism.”

If we start by agreeing not to inhibit revolutions, we may find a number of other problems solved. The debate about “options” is immediately reduced to reasonable dimensions. Moreover, once we abandon interventionism, we can cut the military establishment from its present three-million war level to perhaps one million men — especially if the long-developing detente continues to relax tensions in Europe.

(Pentagon manpower experts will also say, as even former Vice President Nixon argues, that conditions have for some time been ripe for a volunteer army and an end to the draft — even without massive manpower slashes.)

Some may still think that America, with all its power, must prepare for ever expanding nuclear threats. But in truth, after twenty-three years of atomic production, we don’t — we have enough nuclear weapons to handle anything except the fantasies of the military.

This point need not be pressed. Although further acceleration of the arms race is stupid and costly, it is not of significantly greater danger than existing policy. Moreover, if we avoid intervening in revolutions, quite without trying we may see the emergence of a radical change in the international environment. This by itself would help slow the arms race.

The final judgment I would urge is that the Secretary of Defense should take steps to free U.S. policy from the powerful stranglehold of the military. The replacement of Westmoreland reminded the generals where ultimate power resides. More can be done. The tough military leaders who so frightened Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (by his account in A Thousand Days), are in reality quite vulnerable to a wise Secretary of Defense willing to follow up on partial steps both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson have already taken.

After the Cuban fiasco President Kennedy made the Joint Chiefs of Staff sign specific written recommendations to use military force. President Johnson, after the uprising in Saigon in February, also made them declare in writing they thought Khesanh could be and should be defended.

From now on, they should be made to “sign on” to every future recommendation — in great detail. Responsibility will thereby be clearly defined. Although this may well inhibit the Joint Chiefs, it will probably not stop them. But their repeated promises that more bombings and more men would bring victories have already begun to raise doubts about their competence.

To achieve a policy reorientation, it is probably wisest simply to play a waiting game. There may be a period of calm before the storm, but when next we make a costly and bloody error following military advice, I suggest the Secretary reveal the signed recommendations, place the blame where it belongs, and turn the full pressure of public opinion against the advisers who deserve it.

Then it would be shrewd to appoint a committee — headed perhaps by John McCloy or Robert Lovett — to investigate all the bad advice the military has given since 1961 in Vietnam. (There must be a stack of incredible policy papers in Pentagon files!) The committee should disclose all this, arrange for a free-swinging congressional investigation, release special reports to the press. (It might also wish to focus on simple military waste: Senators Williams, Proxmire, and others have made a handsome political profit showing how the taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars are squandered, even in peacetime, by military bureaucrats.)

All of this will help structure the public debate over foreign policy as a debate about the wisdom of the military approach. This is a good beginning and long overdue. Though the debate cannot be resolved, its occurrence will inevitably raise doubts about the hard-liners, free the Secretary’s hand, and give the President some room to maneuver.

Once the stage is set, I suggest limited enclaves leading to withdrawal from Vietnam —and a long, drawn-out negotiation over questions such as precisely how long the United States should stay and precisely how many guarantees we require for some kind of coalition government. The Pentagon can slowly turn down the fighting, put the blame on past military advice (plus the South Vietnamese generals), and ease the issue out of the center of the stage.

In the end, the disclosures and investigation may pave the way for a “never another Vietnam” policy. This most important achievement would implement the judgment that intervening in revolutions is unwise. It might even result in useful congressional restricting legislation, which would help establish longer-term civilian control over the military and interventionism in general.