There is much talk in Washington just now of the “peace dividend,” the amount of money the Federal government will not need for defense now that we can see the end of the cold war. As ever, it’s not quite that simple. If we don’t think this matter through, we could end up baffled and angry and missing a once-in-a-century chance to reshape our government.

A sizable amount of money is not going to be freed up, at least not for years to come. The painful fact is that at the end of the cold war we are saddled with a war debt. That cold war went on for forty years, say from the time the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded in 1949 to, let us say, 1989. Toward the end we lost control of our finances. In eight years during the 1980s we borrowed the equivalent of 85 percent of the debt incurred during World War II. Interest on that $3 trillion sum rising to $4 trillion is now a fifth of the budget and rising; soon it could be its largest single item. Interest now consumes all the income tax collected west of the Mississippi. Interest compounds. David Broder points out that according to the President’s new budget,

with federal taxes pegged at 19.6 percent of the gross national product, Americans are paying more for the support of the national government than [they did in] all but three of the 45 years since World War II ended.

Two of these three years came in the 1980s.

Still, getting our finances in order will be the easy part. The hard part will be getting our government back in order.

The cold war changed us. We used to be pretty much what we started out to be: a republic which expected normally to be at peace. If we were more warlike than we pretended, we rarely prepared for war as if it were always imminent. (Even when it was. Back in 1941 there were pictures in the papers of young draftees running around on “maneuvers” brandishing broom sticks making do for rifles.)

With the cold war all this changed. We became a national security state, geared for war at all times. Instantaneous war. Tension to the breaking point. Was that a flight of arctic geese on the radar? Or Russian missiles? Seven and one half minutes to decide whether to launch our counterattack. Where was the President? Oh God, not in the shower. Get him out! I have heard presidents talk about this and wonder why none went over the edge.

Washington changed. In his wonderful new book, Our Country,1 Michael Barone reminds us that right up until 1933, when the Twentieth Amendment was ratified, the president was elected in November, took office in March, and then Congress convened the following December! That’s what the Founders provided: What’s the hurry? Soon there was nothing but.

The totalitarian state had made its appearance in Europe; something wholly new. Totally mobilized for war, or else getting ready. After World War II came the protracted conflict we call the cold war just now coming to a close. I recently recalled the opening lines of Hannah Arendt’s book The Origins of Totalitarianism, which appeared in 1950:

Two world wars in one generation, separated by an uninterrupted chain of local wars and revolutions, followed by no peace treaty for the vanquished and no respite for the victor, have ended in the anticipation of a third World War between the two remaining world powers. This moment of anticipation is like the calm that settles after all hopes have died.

That mode of anticipation, over at the Pentagon, at the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, allowed no room for sunny dispositions. Each morning the first person to see the President would be the national security adviser. In his briefing book would be a set of “situation reports.” Not infrequently, they would contain what came to be known as “threat analysis in worst possible case condition.” No margin for error.

And yet error became a distinctive feature of the system. This is easy enough to explain. As everything became secret, it became ever more difficult to correct mistakes. Why? Because most of the people who might spot the mistakes were kept from knowing about them because the mistakes were classified. Of all the big mistakes, the biggest was our failure to spot the exhaustion of communism as a world force that had become unmistakable by the 1980s. The senior senator from New York, for one, tried to argue the case, as in this statement to the graduating class at New York University in 1984:

The truth is that the Soviet idea is spent. It commands some influence in the world; and fear. But it summons no loyalty. History is moving away from it with astounding speed. I would not press the image, but it is as if the whole Marxist-Leninist ethos is hurtling off into a black hole in the universe.

Are there Marxist-Leninists here and about in the world? Yes: especially when the West allows communism to identify with nationalism. But in truth, when they do succeed, how well do they do? And for how long?

Nathan Glazer and I had for long contended that the persistence of ethnic attachments simply disproved the central organizing theory of Marxism, which was that such loyalties would disappear once the workers of the world got organized. In 1986 we wrote (for the Harper’s Dictionary of Modern Thought) that “Ethnic conflict within the Soviet empire is likely to prove a major element in 21st-century world politics.” Which, indeed, it will if the Soviet empire lasts that long! From Lithuania to Azerbaijan to Uzbekistan, the place is coming apart before us. A few weeks ago President Mikhail Gorbachev warned that recarving internal Soviet borders would lead to civil war and “such bloody carnage that we won’t be able to crawl out of it.”


It is not hard to understand why arguments such as these went unheard. Marxism is a dense, nineteenth-century Germanic philosophy. It is hard enough for the natives, you could say, and here we are definitely foreigners. When Václav Havel, the new president of Czechoslovakia, addressed a joint meeting of the Congress in February, he spoke of his “one great certainty: Consciousness precedes Being, and not the other way around, as the Marxists claim.” This is a real issue to intellectuals such as Havel, an issue men and women have died for; they hold that beliefs create the “real” world and not vice versa. But you won’t hear much talk of such matters in the White House mess. The real mystery, and the most telling revelation about the national security state is that we completely missed the collapse of the Soviet economy, a subject we are interested in and do talk about.

In that NYU address I argued further:

We should be less obsessed with the Soviets. If we must learn to live with military parity, let us keep all the more in mind that we have consolidated an overwhelming economic advantage. The twenty-four members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, known as the OECD—a quintessential initiative in world politics of the postwar United States—now produce 60 percent of the world’s GNP. The Soviet bloc produces 19 percent.

We now know that by 1984 Soviet economists were in despair. They had a third world economy which was worsening. There was not enough food. Did we spot this? Nope. To the contrary, official Washington held that the Soviet bloc at this time was moving ahead of the West! The Directorate of Intelligence of the CIA publishes an annual Handbook of Economic Statistics. The 1989 edition reports that for the period 1981-1985 the average annual rate of growth in the “USSR” was 1.9 percent, well above the 1.5 percent of the “European Community.” The 1989 edition of the Statistical Abstract of the United States, citing the CIA, reported that the GNP per capita of East Germany was greater than that of West Germany.

Recently I met with a group of Soviet economists over here for a meeting on this subject sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute. They would appear to be the best of the lot, notably Grigorii Ehanin of the Academy of Sciences in Novosibirsk, and Vladimir Tikhonov of the Academy of National Economics of the USSR Academy of Agricultural Science. They offered the view that the Soviet economy is, in fact, as small as one seventh that of the US economy, that is about 14 percent of GNP, as against the CIA estimate of 52 percent. As it happens a Soviet economy of $694 billion, rather than $2,535 billion as the CIA now estimates, would place them seventh in the world, just behind Italy. This strikes me as too small. The Soviet economy is at least a quarter, possibly a third, the size of the United States’. A large number because it is a big place. But in living standards it is at about the level of Mexico. The official view that they were approaching the level of Western Europe had our government all but panicked in the early 1980s. And there is $2 trillion in debt to prove it!

This was the least of it. The national security state began to threaten the Constitution itself. Prom the time of the Vietnam War (itself the product of huge intelligence failure: we thought the Soviets and the Chinese were collaborating, when in fact they were almost at war with each other), the executive branch has been more and more tempted to use secrecy to avoid responsibility, even legality. The Iran-contra affair was only the latest such episode. On March 3, 1988, in the debate on the Intelligence Oversight Act of that year, I began by quoting an article by Theodore Draper in The New York Review:


If ever the constitutional democracy of the United States is overthrown, we now have a better idea of how this is likely to be done.2

Of the mining of Nicaraguan harbors, I said I had been “witness to the first acts of deception that gradually mutated into a policy of deceit.” I was all the more struck, then, when a few weeks ago Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh said he was concentrating on “the essence of the crime”: “a pattern of deceit” at the highest levels of government.

Worse, we are poisoning the wells of our historical memory. Of late, the Soviet Union has been going through an extraordinary period of exhuming the worst crimes of its hideous history. There is almost a compulsiveness in the revelations of what Stalin really did: whom he killed, how many he killed. Even the origins of the Bolshevik regime—it did not overthrow the tsar, it overthrew a democratic provisional government—are now known, almost insisted upon. The United States has no such history. To the contrary. But not everything we have done in this century has been done in the open. Not everything could be. Or should have been. But of late we have become near to obsessed with concealing such facts. The secrecy system has gone loony.

I have just received a letter from the director of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, a group of fine organizations ranging from the Society of Georgian Archivists to the Polish American Historical Society. Here are her opening paragraphs:

I am writing on behalf of the fifty historical and archival organizations that compose the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History to express concern regarding the declining credibility of the Foreign Relations of the United States series. Since 1861, this highly respected documentary series, which in recent years has published volumes about thirty years after the events covered, has been a cornerstone of scholarly research and writing in American foreign relations.

In recent volumes, however, there has been an alarming increase in the proportion of documents withheld from publication owing to security concerns. In February Warren Cohen, a history professor at Michigan State University and the Chair of the U.S. Department of State Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation, resigned because he felt that he was unable to meet his obligation to insure the integrity of the historical record as published in the Foreign Relations of the United States. Cohen’s specific concern was that the State Department no longer allowed the advisory committee members, all of whom have security clearances, to review omitted documents to assure that the deletions did not alter the accuracy of the historical account.

Moreover, in an article in The New York Times on the reasons for his resignation, Warren Cohen wrote as follows:

At least one volume [of Foreign Relations of the United States] published last year, “Iran, 1952–1954,” was a fraud, a gross distortion of American activity. It says nothing about the CIA’s role in overthrowing Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and restoring the shah. Do we think we are hiding this from the Iranians?

Would you believe that much of this was foretold? It was: by Woodrow Wilson, that most tragically gifted of presidents. On September 5, 1919, in St. Louis. Wilson was campaigning across the nation on behalf of the League of Nations, then being debated in the Senate—we would reject it. It was, he said, a “covenant of arbitration and discussion” and law designed to enable the great powers to prevent one another from ever again going through the hell of war. Without the United States, such a league would never work. It may be that it would never have worked anyway, but listen to Woodrow Wilson on what would happen if our absence made certain it would fail:

We must be physically ready for anything to come. We must have a great standing army. We must see to it that every man in America is trained to arms. We must see to it that there are munitions and guns enough for an army;… that they are not only laid up in store, but that they are kept up to date; that they are ready to use tomorrow; that we are a nation in arms….

He went on. No postwar reduction of taxes; an increase. A president who is, on a daily basis, and in an active sense, a military chief.

You have got to think of the President of the United States, not as the chief counselor of the Nation, elected for a little while, but as the man meant constantly and everyday to be the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, ready to order them to any part of the world where the threat of war is a menace to his own people.

And you can’t do that under free debate. You can’t do that under public counsel. Plans must be kept secret. Knowledge must be accumulated by a system which we have condemned, because we have called it a spying system. The more polite call it a system of intelligence….

And you know what the effect of a military government is upon social questions. You know how impossible it is to effect social reform if everybody must be under orders from the Government. You know how impossible it is, in short, to have a free nation if it is a military nation.

Exaggerated, to be sure. Wilson was exhausted. Twenty days later he would collapse at Pueblo, Colorado, never to recover. But in this hour, his passion, he had a vision that was not all that wrong. The national security state consumes the presidency. It grows more and more insulated from the people despite what you see—are shown—on television. (The annual budget of the US Secret Service under Wilson was $21,220. That much was required to protect the president’s person. The budget is now $367,000,000.)

We can’t go back, but as we go forward can we not try to keep in mind the distortions of “The Seventy Year Detour,” as Mary Eberstadt in The National Interest has called the period from the establishment of the first totalitarian state in Russia, through the era of Nazism and Fascism, then the cold war, and now the demise of the Soviet empire? It is time now, she writes, to think again of the world Woodrow Wilson had hoped for, rather than going on mechanically following the routines of the world he feared.

In this sense there will be a “peace dividend,” stated in dollars, and it should be sizable. Take NATO. More than half our defense budget still goes to the defense of Western Europe against invasion by forces of a Warsaw Pact which no longer exists. We have 635,000 American military personnel and dependents assigned to fourteen NATO countries. These Americans are coming home. Not all, but most. Should the twenty-fifth largest school district in the United States really be located in West Germany?

More important, the situation there is politically untenable. Our troops will soon have been on the Rhine for half a century; that is the stuff of Roman legions. Any Sunday morning now a German politician will go on television and announce that the Americans are not in his or her country to protect it but rather to occupy and control it. It does not take much imagination to figure out what follows. Wouldn’t it be better to march out, all flags flying?

All this is going to be hard on the military-industrial complex, which President Eisenhower warned us against in his farewell address. Washington is just now filled with rear-guard actions. Typical headlines: NUCLEAR ARMS STILL NEEDED IN EUROPE, PENTAGON SAYS. SOVIET SPYING ON THE INCREASE, FBI CHIEF SAYS. And yet, there are voices of calm and even celebration. I especially enjoyed a news story of a visit home by General John R. Galvin, Supreme Allied Commander of the NATO forces in Europe. A fine officer, he is convinced that we must develop a new short-range nuclear missile for use in Europe, even though it is clear our allies won’t let us deploy it. He grants that his argument is a bit shaky, and recounts a meeting with General Colin L. Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Galvin reports that when he began his glum argument, General Powell said, “Jack, smile. We won.”

And that is the point. We won! There will be plenty of troubles ahead. Plenty of horror and pain. But the age of totalitarianism is over. The Soviet claim to be the next stage in history is over. How do we now demobilize? How do we move from a national security state to a government that merely asks what are our interests abroad and our needs at home, and calmly and openly pursues them? What a wonderful challenge!


Something called, I’m sorry to say, the Information Security Oversight Office, located in the General Services Administration, has just reported that in 1989 the government created 6,796,501 new secrets. Half again the number of new babies. Is it not likely that the present system of classification actually calls attention to things we would closely hold? If an envelope is marked TOP SECRET—one of the lower classifications by the way—does that make a spy’s work easier?

There must be some amateur mathematicians and cryptographers who will read this. Would anyone care to demonstrate that real secrets—I would judge there are maybe one hundred new ones every year—would be safer if not classified? I will insert selected replies in the Congressional Record. (Which incidentally is a good hiding place for secrets. Even the Russians are known to have despaired of deciphering it.)


This Issue

June 28, 1990