I’ve been reading James Carroll’s history of The Pentagon, “House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power.” I’ve been slogging away at it for weeks now, so you should know that it’s good. The last book that tied me up like this was Tim Weiner’s history of the CIA “Legacy of Ashes,” which is really a companion book about us, the pre-eminent nation on earth in the second half of the 20th century, and where we’ve been leading the world. Both of these works illustrate that despite our intentions and sacrifice of blood and treasure, we have effectively made the world a more dangerous place through our efforts to be safe.
Sometimes this book reads like an index of psychiatric disorders, starting with paranoia, epitomized by the case of James Forrestal, the first Defense Secretary, who literally cracked up, running down the street screaming “the Russians are coming,” finally jumping to his death from a high window at Bethesda Naval Hospital. There’s atomic amnesia, which forces us to learn the same lessons over and over, nuclear schizophrenia, exhibited in our professed strategy of targeting military installations instead of civilian targets, when most bombing casualties from World War Two on have been civilians. We read about Nixon’s “madman theory,” which had US and Russian forces at their highest state of alert in a game of nuclear chicken. And there is the retirement syndrome, in which military and civilian leaders speak out in favor of de-escalation and disarmament, but only when they’re no longer in any position of influence.
Here are the many crises –you didn’t think that the Cuba missile crisis was the only time we were on the brink of Armageddon did you? And missed opportunities , it seems that every time we had a chance to start putting the genie back into the bottle something happened to push us the other way. The arms race always won out, fueled by inter-service rivalry and domestic politics. If the Russians weren’t a threat, our posturing made them one. Hard liners on one side enabled the hard liners on the other until we had 100,000 atomic weapons between us. Even arms control measures fueled the race, as restrictions spurred developments in unrestricted areas, as when you squeeze one end of a balloon,it bulges out somewhere else.
I know that some people don’t like to think about nuclear annihilation, they close their mind to the possibility or fall back on fatalism. Myself, I think that we increase our chance of survival if we “learn to live in truth.” It’s said that it’s not what a man don’t know that makes him a fool; it’s the things he does know that just ain’t so. In light of the historical record, many of the beliefs that we hold turn out to be myths, and the truths we find are forgotten. A more thorough examination of the facts may well prove that our national defense establishment, our military/industrial complex, our permanent wartime economy and state of perpetual emergency have failed to make us safe; they have, rather, created the greatest threat yet to our continued existence.
With apologies to Lewis H. Lapham, Carrol’s 500-page book is followed with 150 pages of notes and sources. Here’s a sample of the stats and facts that caught my eye..
-Truman’s estimate of US lives spared by dropping atomic bombs on Japan: 250,000.
-Churchill’s estimate: 1.5 million
-George H. W. Bush’s estimate, given in 1991: “millions”
-US Defense budget 1950: $13.5 billion
-US Defense budget 1953: >$50 billion
-US Defense spending 1998: $278 billion
-US Defense spending 2008: $800 billion
-Russian Defense spending 1998: $28 billion
-Russian Defense spending 2008: $40 billion
-US stockpile of atom bombs 1950: 300
-US stockpile 1953: 1,300
-US stockpile 1960: 18,000
-Number Soviet ICBMs 1961 according to CIA: 4
-Number Soviet bombers 1961 according to CIA: 200
-Number Soviet short-range sub launched missiles 1961: several dozen
-Number atmospheric nuclear tests worldwide 1950 -1963 test ban: 336
-Worldwide peak total: 30,000 nuclear and 70,000 thermonuclear weapons, 90% US/USSR.