Anyone attempting to understand American diplomatic and military policy in these early years of the 21st Century should read House of War
by James Carroll. This magnum opus (512 pages, over 1600 footnotes) surveys six decades of Pentagon dominance over American foreign policy. Carroll’s thesis is that since its dedication in January 1943, the Pentagon has served as the primary driver of American policy in the world. From the Dresden firebombing to the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to the arms race with the Soviet Union to the war on terror, the military-industrial establishment centered in the Pentagon has driven America’s toward war and militarism. Carroll describes this seemingly inexorable force as a Niagara, heading toward the abyss.
Carroll is no disinterested observer. His father, Lieutenant General Joseph Carroll was the first head of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations in 1947 and later became the longest serving head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. The son roamed the marbled halls of the Pentagon (sliding in his stocking feet, actually) as the American military grew in the wake of World War II and the Soviet Scare. Duck and cover drills in school gave way to his father’s dramatic assignment that in the event of a nuclear attack on Washington, James should drive his mother and brothers south to Richmond. Only then did the full force of America’s precarious position dawn on him.
But that precariousness was always far less than imagined. Since the end of World War II, generals, admirals and their supporters have issued dire warnings of impending peril, always insisting that America develop and deploy more lethal weapons to counter a growing threat from the Soviet Union and monolithic Communism. Fear has always been their ultimate weapon, according to Carroll.
Despite these warnings, America’s Cold War adversary was nowhere nearly as dangerous as predicted. The “missile gap” that helped elect John Kennedy president turned out to be non-existent. When the new Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, pushed the various services on their estimates of Soviet ICBM’s he got estimates in the hundreds from the Air Force. When he demanded that the Air Force prove their estimates, they could not. He soon discovered that the Soviet Union had a total of four deployed ICBM’s.
What McNamara was seeing was the third-generation effect of intelligence entities whose missions were defined so emphatically by the individual services that their ability to serve a broader national interest was almost entirely destroyed. He was confronted with a deeply embedded organizational corruption, the kind of morass that would drive an exacting manager like him crazy.
By 1961 the arms race and militarism had taken the forefront in American policy. The shift was from the State Department (preventing war) to the Defense Department (preparing for war). Carroll is careful to note that countervailing forces always stood in opposition but never prevailed. Secretary of War Henry Stimson proposed in 1945 to share nuclear technology with the Soviets in order to avoid “a secret armament race of a rather desperate character”. President Truman’s failure to take this step away from war set the pattern that continues to this day, a pattern which Carroll notes has largely set the military free from virtually all civilian control. Sure, the president makes the final decision but the structures of command, control, communication and intelligence–the C3I systems–are under military control. The civilians have virtually no role until the situation is almost too late.
Not always. John Kennedy rejected advice to attack Cuba with nuclear weapons in 1962 and in the following year secured passage of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. But the resistance was sporadic, still the juggernaut ran on with more and ever more powerful weapons, even beyond the end of the Cold War. Regarding the September 11 attacks, Carroll writes,
September 11 remains the defining event of the young American century, yet if the long history recounted in this book reveals anything, it is that the US responses to 9/11, while immediately defined by the administration of President George W. Bush, were prepared for by all that had been unfolding in one presidential administration afer another since 1943.
That Hell’s Bottom in Virginia [site of the Pentagon] should have instantly formed the center of the government’s reactions, instead of Foggy Bottom in Washington [State Department], was the result of five decades of Pentagon ascendance of over the State Department.... That war dominated America’s post-9/11 responses echoed what the United States had been doing since the end of the Cold War, when it refused to dismantle the huge military establishment it had created to oppose the now dissolved Soviet Union.
What keeps House of War from being completely hopeless is Carroll’s recognition that popular forces and individuals have managed to keep America and the world from plunging over that abyss. Carroll cites John Kennedy, Mikhail Gorbachev, anti-Vietnam War protesters, the Nuclear Freeze, the Sanctuary Movement and Phillip Berrigan, among others, as counterweights to the seemingly inevitable militarization of America. These forces offer hope for change. Carroll dreams of a different future.
I have written the book about the great Building into which my father took me as a child, before I could see anything but greatness. I have written this book as a way of honoring my parents, and loving them. Once my father warned me of the danger of a coming war, and he commissioned me to do something about it. So I have written this book. Like every other person who lives long enought to bury his father, I learned from him the ultimate lesson of my own mortality. How briefly on the earth we are. Too briefly, I insist, not to find another way to live than by killing. More than for my parents, I have written this book, in love, for my children. And for everyone’s. Let us cherish their future.
Carroll’s personal odyssey through the Pentagon's history demonstrates that more is required than simply changing the party in power. Real change will come only when America is able to look at the world realistically, without fear.