• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Wild Bunch

That opinion is confirmed by Rostow’s reference to Johnson’s general modus operandi. “He would always designate somebody to be the devil’s advocate, to come to some meeting prepared to represent the point of view of another country.” And Ball himself is quoted as saying “resolutely”: “The one thing we have to do is to win this damned war…there is no longer any useful argument to be made about current policies.”

Professor Neustadt’s book is on a much higher level of sophistication and subtlety than any of the other books discussed here. His analysis of American-British relations on the occasion of the Suez crisis of 1956 and of the Skybolt affair of 1962 illuminates the weakness and in considerable measure the irrelevance of academic research for the conduct of foreign policy. What went wrong, Professor Neustadt asks, in the relations between two intimate allies when Great Britain undertook military action against Egypt in the teeth of American opposition and when the United States canceled unilaterally the production of Skybolt, an air-to-surface missile which we promised Great Britain in order to implement its independent nuclear deterrent?

He finds the answer in the inability of both sides to understand the motivation and restraints, institutional and political, of the other side. What stood in the way of sound policies was “the bureaucratic politics of home…necessitous relations inside government.” The Americans played the game according to American rules, the British played it according to theirs, each assuming that both would abide by the same rules, their own. In consequence, they made mistakes they could have avoided had they known and considered the rules by which the other side operated. For instance:

Had Dulles known the British were unlikely to be hobbled by internal opposition, the sheer inconvenience of another outcome probably would not have been enough to keep him hopeful. Had Eden known that Eisenhower probably would want to dissociate Americans emphatically from allied intervention, he might not have been content to leave him in that posture for a week. Had Macmillan known how critical for Kennedy were budgetary tactics, he might not have waited on events. Had McNamara known that Thorneycroft was sitting still he almost certainly would have bestirred himself. In all such instances, a faulty reading of the other side lent these men confidence that its behavior would match their convenience.

The minute examination of positions, motivations, interests, objectives, restraints, and actions—a model of micropolitical analysis—bears the author’s thesis out.

However, Professor Neustadt is not interested in diplomatic history as such. What concerns him are the causes of past failures and how their repetition can be avoided. “Hopefully [sic] this book can contribute something toward construction of new modes of thought about relationships between our government and its allies. But if the hope is to be realized, then the burden of construction falls on those of us who work in universities, not on the men who govern.” It is at this point that the limitations of Professor Neustadt’s approach become visible. He himself raises the crucial question, “May it be that in these crises our men suffered not avoidable mistakes but rather limitations native to relations between governments?” He answers that question in the negative by implication. That is, however, the wrong answer. It is so on three grounds.

First, to anticipate the reactions to one’s own action, political or otherwise, is always hazardous. No amount of knowledge of the kind Professor Neustadt found lacking could have eliminated the psychological and political hazards inherent in anticipating the public and private reactions of other persons to somebody else’s action. Those hazards derive from the other person’s freedom, the use of which in a particular situation can be intuitively guessed at, but cannot be rationally determined beforehand. Even if Messrs. Dulles and McNamara had known what Professor Neustadt knows, they still would have had to guess how Messrs. Eden and Macmillan would react, even though that knowledge might have sharpened their anticipation of possible untoward reactions.

Second, if the actors in the Suez and Skybolt affairs could have known what Professor Neustadt deems necessary for avoiding the crises, they would no doubt have avoided some tactical errors, but it is still an open question whether they could have avoided the substantive fiasco, for no such simple relationship ties action to knowledge. Personal experience illuminated by modern psychology ought to have disabused Professor Neustadt of this rationalistic illusion. Men make mistakes because they are ignorant, but they also make mistakes because they are incapable of acting on what they know. Between knowledge and action, irrational factors intervene to disarm knowledge as a guide to action.

The Vietnam war is a case in point. In 1966, I was told by a high government official that whenever he briefed the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the polycentric character of Communism, they agreed as a matter of course, but that there was not a trace of recognition of that fact in their position papers on the conduct of the Vietnam war. Professor Graff’s book is rich in instances of this kind.

Finally, in the conduct of foreign policy, the crucial factor intervening between knowledge and action is the assumptions of, and aspirations for, power. This was indeed the factor which in 1956 and 1962 made some kind of clash between the United States and Great Britain unavoidable. In 1956, Great Britain proposed to act as a great power pursuing its interests regardless of the interests of other great powers. The intervention of the United States, in conjunction with the Soviet Union, made it clear to Great Britain and to the rest of the world that Great Britain could no longer pursue its interests regardless of the interests of the two superpowers because it was not a superpower and no longer even a great power. This lesson administered by the United States is at the root of the Suez crisis of 1956. Had American and British statesmen known about each other what Professor Neustadt knows, they might have been able to change or even mitigate the modalities of the blow, but they could have done nothing to forestall recognition that their relationship had radically changed.

Similarly, the Skybolt affair of 1962 revealed the dependence of Great Britain, still pretending to the status of an independent nuclear power, upon the United States. That revelation could have been handled more tactfully by American statesmen and more adroitly by the British had they had the requisite knowledge about each other, but its substance was bound to come to light in some form, and this was bound to cause dismay in Britain.

Professor Neustadt’s abortive attempt to overcome the hazards of foreign policy with knowledge is the latest but probably not the last undertaking of this kind. His micropolitical analysis, however brilliant in itself, is particularly inadequate for the understanding of foreign policy; for it does not see the forest of national interest and power for the trees of misperceptions of political and institutional detail. Neustadt’s attempt to reduce international politics to the intricacies of bureaucratic transactions is original, but it shares its inspiration with a potent tradition of long standing. Our desire for rational certainty, especially in a sphere of action as portentous as foreign policies in our age, is challenged by the unpredictability of foreign policy. But academics in particular are forever searching for the philosopher’s stone that will show them how our rational propensities can be superimposed on a rationally intractable reality. They have not succeeded and cannot succeed because they are up against the immutable nature of foreign policy which yields to intuitive hunches about someone’s actions and perceptive estimates of changing historical forces but not to prediction derived from complete knowledge.

It is significant that the two books which deal adequately with their chosen problems were written by military men. Alternative to Armageddon is the product of the cooperation of two eminent generals, one American, the other German, and an American colonel, and it is favored with a Preface by General Lemnitzer, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. They share what has become the prevailing military reaction to the Vietnam war—that it has been indecisive, divisive, protracted, and costly owing to political restraints and lack of popular support. They find a preferable alternative in the blitzkrieg, “a strategic deterrent through blitz-oriented field commanders, leading blitz-adept forces,” preferably but not necessarily short of nuclear war.

This thesis is developed with considerable competence both historically and systematically and has indeed a kind of gruesome merit within the context of official policy. For if we set out to win a war such as the one we are waging in Vietnam, “victory” requires the physical destruction of the hostile people. There is no other way of winning a genuine war of national liberation. This being the case, it is indeed much more economical, in the broadest meaning of the term, to reduce the enemy to oblivion in one fell swoop than piecemeal. If you want to win a war, get to it and don’t fool around: this is in essence the message of the book.

This strategy seeks to marry modern technology to the state of mind—initiative, daring, flexibility—of the great captains of the past. Its feasibility is predicated upon the availability of “an entire corps of mobile leaders,” who have overcome “the power of uniformed mental immobility,” the bureaucratization of information, and an uncritical reliance upon automation. “There is a tendency to regard computer-released information as accurate and timely; it may well be neither.” The basic principle recommended by these writers is: “Maximize the speed of information flow and the amount of pertinent information available, while insuring the isolation and immediate delivery of items requiring command decisions.” The historic masters of the blitzkrieg, as the authors persuasively argue, “would not have allowed the availability of mountains of information to inhibit the mobility and violence of their attacks.” The critical analysis of the present practices of the Armed Forces, on the basis of historic instances and hypothetical situations, is perhaps the most valuable service rendered by the book.

The books I have discussed may be seen as symptoms of what is wrong with American foreign and military policy. Militarism, U.S.A. is a frontal attack upon these policies, written by a retired Marine Corps colonel in close cooperation with General Shoup, a former commandant of the Marine Corps. The book provides by far the most intelligent, knowledgeable, comprehensive, balanced, and literate account and critique of the military influence upon American life I know of.

Its starting point is inevitably the Vietnam war.

By now it should be clear that the theories of counterinsurgency, graduated response, and limited war are unable to support political commitments and objectives that are not in consonance with the realities of peoples’ revolutions and irregular warfare in Asia. We are faced with the hard fact that we cannot impose our will on the political and social order of Asian peoples. It is a grim revelation that there are limits of U.S. power and our capabilities to police the world.

For the author, militarism is not a monopoly of the Pentagon, but a new quality of American life. He shows for instance how the American language has been permeated by the military vernacular. He shows also the extent to which military decisions are actually made by civilian militarists:

Also during the years prior to 1964 the Joint Chiefs of Staff resisted any temptation or recommendations to get involved in a land war in Southeast Asia. They believed such action both unnecessary and unwise. Actually our armed intervention in Vietnam was not a continuation of Eisenhower-Kennedy policies so much as it was the result of new aggressive and militaristic policies evolved by President Johnson’s civilian advisers who desired to be generals and military strategists, and to the urge among Pentagon careerists who were tempted to test their theories of counterinsurgency, and to try out new organizations and equipment in a “limited” war against “Communist aggression.”

Donovan quotes with approval Tocqueville’s remark, “War does not always give democratic societies over to military government, but it must invariably and immeasurably increase the powers of civil government; it must almost automatically concentrate the direction of all men and the control of all things in the hands of the government. If that does not lead to despotism by sudden violence, it leads men gently in that direction by their habits.”

The breadth and depth of this book are truly remarkable. The chapter entitled “A Nation of Veterans” is a model of sociological analysis. We learn that more than 26 million people, that is, about 45 percent of the adult male population, are veterans. These men have been affected, in different ways, by their military service, and their attitudes, in turn, affect the national climate of opinion. A chapter of the book dealing with “The Weapons Merchants” gives an analysis of the military budget and military procurement contracts, the profits and losses of the defense industries and their share in, and influence upon, the total economy, the vested interests of certain members of Congress and of many members of the military in the defense industries. These twenty pages tell us more about the dynamics of the military-industrial complex than the impotent polemics to which we have been treated. The psychological and sociological analysis of the military establishment also makes a unique contribution to our knowledge of a thus far esoteric subject, which is more often attacked than understood.

What, then, does the colonel suggest as a remedy? “The first order of national business, then, should be to get all American forces out of Vietnam—and to stop the killing of Americans.”

The new basic national security policy should recognize two fundamental facts: 1. There are limits to the power of the United States. 2. The United States is strategically essentially an air/sea power—not a land power.

The connotations of “national defense,” “patriotism” and “anti-communism” must be continually evaluated in terms of the real world. They cannot be merely sacred shibboleths used by doctrinaires and demagogues to support special interests.

We should determine whether a nation with 3.4 million men under arms and with powerful forces numbering over 1.2 million people overseas, far from American shores, is maintaining a defensive or actually an aggressive posture. Who are we defending against? For the past twenty-two years, the nation’s and the militarists’ enemy has been “aggressive communism,” the product of the worldwide Communist conspiracy.

The power of American militarism and the defense bureaucracy has been born of fear created by these Communist hobgoblins. If “anti-Communist,” then, is all we can agree on as a national credo, we will never be able to cure the psychosis of force and destruction which has become the American tragedy.

The simplest, speediest and most readily understandable means of controlling militarism is to cut military manpower strengths and to reduce defense appropriations.

I have been told that this officer, endowed with extraordinary intelligence and soundness of judgment, retired from the Marine Corps because he was passed over for promotion to general. If we heed his warnings, the Marine Corps’s loss will prove to be the nation’s gain. But the military-industrial complex is served by many men of outstanding intelligence and wide knowledge whose judgment is, however, far inferior to Colonel Donovan’s.

If the high quality of both books by military men and the inadequacy of the others here discussed are an indication of a general distribution of competence—and my personal experience leads me to believe that it is—then we may conclude that in the strictly professional sphere the military can produce men who at least know their business, however ill-defined or narrowly conceived. If civil government in the United States should ever falter, overwhelmed by problems whose very existence it has chosen to deny, the military will stand ready to impose order upon a disintegrating society; but General Shoup and Colonel Donovan are not likely to be among those who will govern us then.


In with LBJ May 6, 1971

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print