Naïve Questions about War and Peace
The Tuesday Cabinet
Alternative to Armageddon
It may appear banal to assert once again that America is in the throes of a crisis—or rather a series of crises—more threatening to its survival as a civilized society and a liberal, democratic polity than any previous ones have been. Yet the government, whose legitimacy rests upon its willingness and ability to protect us from the dangers that threaten us, prefers manipulating the politics of these dangers to confronting their substance. For if the administration were to do the latter, it would inevitably have to undertake a transformation of our domestic and foreign policies that would be unprecedented in its radicalism. Yet the government is forced by its political philosophy and interests to avert its gaze and to act as though these problems did not exist at all, or had been artificially created by some misguided small minorities (whom the police will control).
This somnambulistic defense of outmoded institutions and practices that are not worth defending and that in the long run cannot be defended with the instruments of liberal democracy is of course an integral part of the crisis itself. For the government to deny the reality of dilemmas that cannot be resolved with the means it is willing to employ is to abdicate its responsibility to govern—“neglect” being raised to a maxim of statecraft—and to substitute rhetoric and repression for effective substantive policies.
It is a reflection of the same crisis that explicitly or implicitly eminent members of the intellectual community are attempting to justify the government’s position. Thus we have recently been informed by a reputable magazine that the crisis is in our minds, created by intellectuals who talk about crisis, rather than in objective reality, the implication being that there would be no crisis if only the intellectuals stopped talking about it. And in the same issue of the same magazine a reputable social scientist announces that he has transformed himself from a “moderate radical” into a “moderate conservative.” While the former argument is the intellectual equivalent of the patient throwing out the thermometer in order to convince himself that he has no fever, the latter position is tantamount to a declaration of intellectual and political bankruptcy in the face of issues crying out for radical innovation.
These reflections are suggested by a number of recent books on the foreign and military policies of the United States. Most of them are defective because they refuse to deal with the actual problems facing us; instead, they show us the ways in which politicians and experts can use rhetoric and analysis to screen themselves from political reality. The two adequate books are by professional soldiers, and that very fact is troubling.
To start with the worst of the lot, Mr. Whitworth’s volume is not a book at all, but consists of the clearly unedited tapes of interviews with Professor Eugene Rostow, former Under-secretary of State for Political Affairs. It holds what must be a record of unfinished sentences per page. Whitworth: “That would materially enlarge China’s—“ Rostow: “Range of influence. Now, I think the other—“ Whitworth: “On the other hand, some economic affiliation with China wouldn’t necessarily mean a political affiliation.” Rostow: “Not a bit. Not at all. No, I’m talking about—“ Whitworth: “It’s just that it doesn’t sound like a good idea for—“ Rostow: “It’s a traditional attitude toward—“ On pages 71-73 alone, there are five such gems.
Mr. Whitworth, a staff writer for The New Yorker, where these interviews first appeared, approached Lyndon Johnson, Dean Rusk, Walt Rostow, and William Bundy, all of whom declined. They showed better judgment than did Professor Eugene Rostow. For while Mr. Rostow has something useful to say about our relations with Europe and while some of Mr. Whitworth’s questions are less naïve than Mr. Rostow’s answers, the whole enterprise is a waste of time.
Mr. Whitworth seems to be aware of it. “This is a very depressing conversation,” he says on page 60. “This is all so vague. I’m trying to get something concrete, to get past these assertions…,” he complains on pages 76 and 77. And when Mr. Rostow tells him that we are concerned with Asia because “We need a world of wide horizons—,” he interjects: “But that’s so vague. You can say those things, and they sound good, they sound reasonable, but what do they mean?” Two further questions need to be asked: What had The New Yorker in mind when it published this stuff, and what did W. W. Norton expect to gain by putting it between hard covers? Perhaps one of Mr. Rostow’s few completely intelligible answers gives a clue: “The world is absolutely nuts.”
The Tuesday Cabinet is not a good book either, but it contains interesting and sometimes revealing raw material for a future historian, especially a biographer of Lyndon Johnson. In 1965, The New York Times commission the author, a professor of history at Columbia University, to write three articles for its magazine on the modes of thought and action of the prominent members of the Johnson Administration concerned with Vietnam. I was told at the time that this commission was a response to White House complaints to The New York Times, which had just published my article “We Are Deluding Ourselves in Vietnam.”
This book is the complete record of Professor Graff’s visits to the Tuesday luncheons in the White House, a kind of war council on Vietnam, attended by Johnson, Rusk, McNamara, General Wheeler, McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow, and others, as well as his meetings with individual members of that group. The result is neither journalism nor history, but a kind of court chronicle, setting down in indiscriminate detail what went on.
The personality of the chronicler appears only in his awe at being allowed into the presence of the powerful and in his unconditional surrender to political conformism. “The men of the Tuesday Cabinet were masterful figures, but the overwhelming force in their official lives was Lyndon Baines Johnson.” The intervention in the Dominican Republic is called a “forthright action.” The war in Vietnam is defined as “an unprecedented conflict between American humaneness and American commitment.”
At times the author plunges into unabashed Byzantinism:
The most important [sic] was that those who made the country’s policy were neither tired nor discouraged. They were hopeful, even though not enthusiastic about the bombing pause and the peace offensive, self-assured but not cocky. Their willingness to look for instruction and guidance from their opponents in Congress and in the nation was unimpaired. Seeing these men just after the Senate hearings, I found them in full command of their abilities. The course of this uniquely frustrating war had not turned them into vindictive warriors.
…the men of the Tuesday Cabinet were strong, discerning, and gallant.
I walked toward a police lieutenant to ask him how I could get to the Eastern Shuttle parking-lot, where I had left my car. He called to a sergeant: “Get this man wheels.” In a few minutes I was at my car, feeling I had been delivered there by the power of the Presidency itself.
Thus it is not by accident that “our meetings—I could not but realize—were important to the President. Whenever he had to postpone or delay a scheduled session with me—a meeting of the National Security Council had run late, or a forthcoming State of the Union Message required intensive work, or it was necessary for him to be out of the country—he rescheduled it almost immediately.” Graff’s importance to Johnson is obvious. It is outside Professor Graff’s assigned and assumed role to question the purposes and instruments of the Johnson Administration. His refusal to question policies and policy formation together with his awe of the powerful perform a positive function for the holders of power: they implicitly legitimize their actions. Thus it is not surprising that Lyndon Johnson remarked after Graff’s first visit: “We must have him back again.”
The merit of this book does not lie in its literal reproduction—passive, approving, or even admiring—of the arguments of the actors in the drama justifying their actions. The false analogies and political superstitions, the vulgar ignorance and paranoiac fears, the delusory expectations and the contempt for rational dissent on which they rested their case are public property. So are many of the psychological peculiarities of Lyndon Johnson. But the book, by quoting the President verbatim over long stretches, comes close to performing the functions of a psychoanalyst’s couch by illuminating the personality of the President and emphasizing certain propensities not formerly revealed in such vivid detail. Two aspects of the President’s psyche stand out in this account: his concern with race and his concern with violent sex.
Here is the President’s explanation of Senator Fulbright’s opposition to the war:
“It’s some little racial problem.” Fulbright, who had studied at Oxford, simply “cannot understand that people with brown skins value freedom too. I say,” added the President, clearly as if it were not for the first time, “if you want a social revolution in the Dominican Republic, why don’t you start it in Little Rock?”
…He replied that there was a strong strain of racism in it, by which he meant a feeling that the Vietnamese “are not our kind of people, that they’re an ancient people, that they’re a brown people, not able to take care of themselves.”
…”Fulbright feels racist.”
Referring to his trip to Australia, Johnson enumerates all the Asian leaders whom he met there and adds: “They all sat down at the table with this white man.” Once Johnson has established his freedom from racism, he shoulders the white man’s burden:
I want to leave the footprints of America there. I want them to say, “When the Americans come, this is what they leave—schools, not long cigars.” He paused: “We’re going to turn the Mekong into a Tennessee Valley.”
Clinching his arguments in defense of the war, Johnson startled his academic visitor with this rhetorical question: “I ask how many times do I let a fiend rape my wife?” He is incensed at what he calls the “disloyalty” and “unpatriotic sentiments of the Department of State” and adds, “It’s gotten so that you can’t have intercourse with your wife without it being spread around by traitors.” “Not to make absolutely certain, the President said, was like opening the way for ‘your wife to be attacked out in the hall.’ ”
The book’s other contribution to historic knowledge is the deflation of the myth that the then Undersecretary of State George Ball was opposed to the Vietnam war.
Moyers described Ball as a “necessary and effective devil’s advocate, seeking diplomatic and political options which might be pursued.” He “plays the role of seer, looking beyond many turns down the road. His avocation is to pursue a set of assumptions.”
Rusk said Ball had only played that role when he was “assigned” it.
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