The Kennedy Administration: Camelot or Incompetence?

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They seemed perfect …

The Kennedy Administration: Camelot or Incompetence?

W.J. Astore

President John F. Kennedy is surrounded by myths, the most famous of which is Camelot. The Kennedys brought youth and glamour to the White House, a reprieve from the perceived stodginess of Ike and Mamie Eisenhower (as well as the “square” and indeed criminal Nixon White House to come).  They seemed the perfect couple, John and Jackie, and it seems churlish and graceless to note how much of this was image.  Kennedy was a notorious womanizer, a fact both known and suppressed by a fawning Washington Press Corps.  Jackie came across as a traditional wife: loyal, unobjectionable, limited by her times but also steely in her grace and fortitude after her husband was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963 (the latest movie that captures this awful event is Jackie, starring Natalie Portman).

Kennedy’s father, Joe Sr., taught his sons a sense of winning at all costs. A sense of recklessness. Kennedy’s older brother, Joe Jr. died leading a risky bombing mission in World War II, and John F. Kennedy nearly died when he lost his PT boat in action in the Pacific.  The loss of PT-109 was depicted as a heroic act, as the young JFK helped to save some of his crew, but one may question how he came to lose his boat in the first place. JFK’s perfect marriage, as already mentioned, was a sham, and despite his relative youth, he was not in the best of health, plagued by a bad back, Addison’s disease, and other health issues. His Pulitzer-prize winning book, “Profiles in Courage,” was largely ghost written.  JFK’s life was often more a triumph of image than a profile in courage.

As President, Kennedy made many unwise decisions.  He escalated American involvement in Laos and Vietnam, setting the stage for a major commitment of U.S. ground troops by President Lyndon Johnson early in 1965.  He oversaw the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, which backfired badly on the inexperienced U.S. commander-in-chief.  As Lawrence Freedman put it in his book, Kennedy’s Wars (2000), “This was exactly the sort of move—gambling on the basis of insufficient strength and then abandoning the operation before it was complete—that made [Dean] Acheson despair.”  Freedman further cites Acheson as saying European leaders compared JFK’s bungling to “a gifted amateur practicing with a boomerang and suddenly knocking himself cold.  They were amazed that so inexperienced a person should play with so lethal a weapon.”

Greater lethality was to come the next year with the Cuban Missile Crisis.  This is often sold as JFK’s moment of steely toughness, when he made the Soviets blink and back down, but as a recent book by Daniel Ellsberg reveals, that crisis nearly resulted in nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.  It was yet another instance of JFK’s tendency toward taking big risks as a way of proving himself.  Almost precipitating nuclear Armageddon, however, is terrifying way to prove one’s fitness for office.

Even before JFK became president, he fabricated what today might be called “alternative facts.”  He invented a missile gap vis-à-vis the Soviet Union that didn’t exist.  In fact, the true missile gap was the opposite of what JFK claimed, in that the U.S. had many more nuclear ICBMs than the Soviets did.  When he became president, JFK embarked on a strategic policy of “Flexible Response” (suggested by General Maxwell Taylor) that activated and empowered more conventional operations by the U.S. military.  In practice what this meant was that the U.S. became embroiled in conflicts that were secondary to national interests; worst of all, of course, was a major land war in Vietnam that was essentially a lost cause even before Kennedy chose to escalate it with more advisers and materiel aid.

Defenders of JFK suggest he grew in office and would have seen the folly of continuing in Vietnam, but there’s little evidence to support this narrative.  The recent Ken Burns series on the Vietnam War cites Kennedy as saying the U.S. couldn’t win in Vietnam, but that he couldn’t order a withdrawal because to do so would cost him his reelection in 1964.  JFK, moreover, fancied the notion of Flexible Response, his New Look military and its emphasis on special ops forces such as the Green Berets, and he saw Vietnam as a test bed for a “counterinsurgency” approach to defeating communism. What LBJ did in 1965 in escalating that conflict by committing U.S. ground troops is probably what JFK would have done if he had lived.  (In his book, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam, Fredrik Logevall suggests JFK may have had the political will to resist escalation in 1965, effectively allowing South Vietnam to fall to communism, an intriguing if unprovable scenario.)

In sum, JFK set the stage for America’s disastrous war in Southeast Asia while provoking the Soviet Union into an escalatory nuclear arms race that threatened the world with extinction.  Profiles in courage these are not.

It’s worth briefly comparing JFK’s record to that of Richard Nixon, who has no Camelot myths attached to him.  Nixon, of course, was and is vilified as “Tricky Dick” and dismissed as one of America’s worst presidents.  He deserves opprobrium for his mendacious, meretricious, and murderous policies vis-à-vis Southeast Asia, especially his well-nigh treasonous meddling in peace negotiations in 1968, before he was elected president.  Nixon and Henry Kissinger saw themselves as the world’s powerbrokers, working to overthrow governments they disliked, as in Chile with the coup against Allende.  But Nixon and Kissinger deserve a measure of credit for opening negotiations with communist China as well as starting a process of détente with the Soviet Union.  Nixon showed a capacity for growth in office even as he permitted his own ego and paranoia to undermine his administration’s accomplishments in foreign policy.

The point here is not to praise Nixon, a man of considerable gifts but also of crippling flaws.  Rather, the point is to highlight an overly fawning approach to the presidency of John F. Kennedy.  His administration, rather than serving as a shining moment, a Camelot, ultimately was an exercise in imagery and incompetence.

The Doomsday Machine: The Madness of America’s Nuclear Weapons

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W.J. Astore

I just finished Daniel Ellsberg’s new book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.  Talk about hair-raising!  Ellsberg, of course, is famous for leaking the Pentagon papers, which helped to end the Vietnam war and the presidency of Richard Nixon as well.  But before Ellsberg worked as a senior adviser on the Vietnam war, he helped to formulate U.S. nuclear policy in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  His book is a shattering portrayal of the genocidal nature of U.S. nuclear planning during the Cold War — and that threat of worldwide genocide (or omnicide, a word Ellsberg uses to describe the death of nearly everything from a nuclear exchange that would generate disastrous cooling due to nuclear winter) persists to this day.

Rather than writing a traditional book review, I want to list some memorable facts and lessons I took from the book, lessons that should lead us to question the very sanity of America’s leaders.  To wit:

  1. U.S. nuclear war plans circa 1960 envisioned a simultaneous attack on the USSR and China that would generate 600 million deaths after six months.  As Ellsberg notes, that is 100 Holocausts.  This plan was to be used even if China hadn’t directly attacked the U.S., i.e. the USSR and China were lumped together as communist bad guys who had to be eliminated together in a general nuclear war.  Only one U.S. general present at the briefing objected to this idea: David M. Shoup, a Marine general and Medal of Honor winner, who also later objected to the Vietnam War.
  2. The U.S. military consistently overestimated the Soviet nuclear threat, envisioning missile and bomber gaps that didn’t exist.  In the nuclear arms race, the U.S. was often racing itself in the fielding of more and more nuclear weapons.
  3. General Curtis LeMay, the famous commander of Strategic Air Command (SAC) and later AF Chief of Staff, said that once war started, politicians like the president had no role to play in decision-making.
  4. When the atomic bomb was first tested in 1945, there were fears among the scientists involved that the atmosphere could be ignited, ending all life on earth.  The chance was considered remote (perhaps 3 in a million), so the scientists pressed ahead.
  5. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 came much closer to nuclear war than most people recognize.  Soviet submarines in the area, attacked by mock U.S. depth charges, were prepared to launch nuclear torpedoes against U.S. ships.  Fidel Castro’s air defenses were also preparing to shoot down American planes, which may have ended in U.S. air attacks and an invasion in which Soviet troops on Cuba may have used nuclear weapons to defend themselves.
  6. The U.S. military was (and probably still is) extremely reluctant to reveal nuclear secrets to senior American civilian leaders, including even the President himself.  Ellsberg, possessing the highest security clearances and acting with presidential authority, had to pry answers from military officers who refused to provide detailed and complete information.
  7. The U.S. has always refused, and continues to refuse, to pledge to a “no first use” policy for nuclear weapons.
  8. The U.S. remains the only country to have used nuclear weapons (Hiroshima and Nagasaki).  Yet, as Ellsberg notes, the U.S. uses nuclear weapons all the time — by threatening their use, as President Eisenhower did during the Korean War, as President Nixon did during the Vietnam War, and as President Trump is doing today, promising “fire and fury” against North Korea.  The U.S. uses nuclear weapons like a loaded gun — holding it to an enemy’s head and threatening to pull the trigger, Ellsberg notes.  In short, there’s nothing exceptional about Trump and his nuclear threats.  All U.S. presidents have refused to take nuclear attacks “off the table” of options for U.S. action.
  9. Interservice rivalry has always been a driver of U.S. nuclear force structure and strategy.  The Navy (with its nuclear submarine programs, Polaris followed by Trident) and especially the Air Force (with its ICBMs and bombers) jealously guard their nuclear forces and the prestige/power/budgetary authority they convey.
  10. President Eisenhower’s emphasis on massive retaliation (as represented by SAC and its war plan, the SIOP) was a way for him to limit the power of the military-industrial complex (MIC).  But once Ike was gone, so too was the idea of using the nuclear deterrent as a way of restricting U.S. expenditures on conventional weaponry and U.S. adventurism in foreign wars, e.g. Vietnam.  (It should be said that Ike’s exercise at limiting the MIC in America held the world as a nuclear hostage.)
  11. Ellsberg shows convincingly that control over U.S. nuclear weapons was decentralized and delegated to much lower levels than most Americans know.  It’s not the case that only the president can launch a nuclear war.  Especially in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Ellsberg shows how it was possible that field-grade officers (majors and colonels) could have made decisions in the heat of battle to release nuclear weapons without direct orders from the president.
  12. Most Americans, Ellsberg notes, still don’t understand the huge quantitative and qualitative differences between atomic bombs and hydrogen (thermonuclear) weapons.  Hydrogen bombs are measured in megatons in equivalent TNT yield; atomic bombs are in kilotons.  In short, hydrogen bombs are a thousand times more destructive than atomic ones.  And this is just their explosive yield.  Radioactive fallout and massive fires are even bigger threats to life on earth.
  13. Most Americans still don’t understand that even a smallish nuclear exchange involving a few dozen hydrogen bombs could very well lead to nuclear winter and the deaths of billions of people on the earth (due to the widespread death of crops and resulting famine and disease).
  14. Despite the genocidal threat of nuclear weapons, the U.S. is persisting in plans to modernize its arsenal over the next 30 years at a cost of $1 trillion.

Ellsberg sees this all as a form of collective madness, and it’s hard to disagree.  He quotes Nietzsche to the effect that madness in individuals is rare, but that it’s common among bureaucracies and nations.  The tremendous overkill inherent to U.S. nuclear weapons — its threat of worldwide destruction — is truly a form of madness.  For how do you protect a nation or uphold its ideals by launching a nuclear war that would kill nearly everyone on earth?  How does that make any sense?  How is that not mad?

Ellsberg ends his “confessions” with many sane proposals for downsizing nuclear arsenals across the world.  But is anyone in power listening?  Certainly not U.S. presidents like Trump or Obama, who both signed on to that trillion dollar modernization program for U.S. nuclear weapons.

Ellsberg shows us there have been many chair-bound paper-pushers in the U.S. government who’ve drawn up plans to murder hundreds of millions of people — to unleash doomsday — all in the name of protecting America.  He also shows how close they’ve come to doing just that, especially during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but during other crises as well.

Nuclear brinksmanship, threats of nuclear war, and similar uses of nuclear weapons to intimidate hold the potential for catastrophe.  Miscalculations, mishaps, mistakes, are more than possible in an atmosphere of mistrust, when words and actions can be misinterpreted.

Ellsberg’s recommendations for changes point the way to a better world, a world where the threat of nuclear doomsday could be much reduced, perhaps eliminated completely.  The question remains: Is anyone in power listening?

Friday Morning Thoughts

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Johnny Rocco (with gun) wants more

W.J. Astore

A few thoughts on this Friday morning:

1. Andrew Bacevich at TomDispatch.com describes 24 stories/questions that are being ignored or neglected by the mainstream media as they obsess about Donald Trump. I’d like to add #25 to his list, as follows: Why is everything in America classified? The constant appeal to classification, to secrecy, prevents the discussion of vitally important military and security matters in public.  Is the real target of all this secrecy our rivals and enemies, or is it the American people?

Related to my #25, of course, is the persecution of “whistleblowers” for allegedly violating secrecy.  Under the Obama administration, people were accused of sedition and treason when their real “crime” was trying to keep the American people informed about what their government is really doing.

In short, when did the USA become the former Soviet Union, with its own NKVD/KGB and a state-controlled media that essentially promulgates and enforces the dictates of the powerful?

2. Afghanistan is a mess. According to this morning’s SITREP at FP: Foreign Policy, “Defense and intelligence officials are warning that the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan is likely to get worse before it ever gets better, despite the presence of thousands of U.S. troops and tens of billions invested in building and funding the faltering Afghan security forces.”

“’The intelligence community assesses that the political and security situation in Afghanistan will almost certainly deteriorate through 2018, even with a modest increase in military assistance by the United States and its partners,’ Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said in a Senate hearing Thursday. The Pentagon is looking to add another 3,000 troops to the effort there in the coming months, pushing American advisors closer to the front lines to work directly with Afghan forces in the fight.”

After sixteen years of American/Coalition efforts, the Taliban is resurgent, yet the only strategy U.S. generals can offer is more troops and more money to train Afghan security forces that are mostly unreliable and often non-existent.  Why can’t the U.S. military admit defeat and leave?

Consider a sports analogy.  Last week, the Yankees-Cubs played an 18-inning game, eventually won by the Yankees.  Game over.  Imagine if the Cubs had said, “OK — We lost.  But we want to keep playing.  Maybe another 18 innings.  Maybe forever.  We just want to keep playing until we can claim, falsely even, that we’ve won.”  We’d label the Cubs as crazy.  As poor sports.  As deluded.

But this is what America is in Afghanistan.  We’ve lost in extra innings but we still want to keep playing — forever, it seems.

Daniel Ellsberg nailed it back in 2009.  The U.S. is a foreign power in Afghanistan engaged in a bloody stalemate that cannot be won.  Yet America persists, in part because U.S. presidents kowtow to military “judgment” and the idea that to withdraw from Afghanistan is to appear weak and unmanly.

3. Speaking of issues of manliness, Donald Trump (among others) likes to use the phrase “taking the gloves off” to refer to hyper-aggressive military actions. When did bare-knuckle brawling become a smart way to fight? Actually, it’s a great way to break your hand.  Boxing is dangerous enough while wearing gloves, yet our Washington “fighters” are ready to get down and dirty by doffing their gloves.  As I’ve written before, far too many Americans (and people in general) have died in the name of big-boy pants and similar machismo nonsense.

4. At TomDispatch.com, Army Major Danny Sjursen succinctly summarizes the U.S. military’s strategy in one word: More. As Sjursen puts it in his article:

Predictions are always a dicey matter, but recent history suggests that we can expect military escalation, which already seems to be underway in at least three of those countries.  More, after all, remains the option of choice for America’s generals almost 70 years after MacArthur went head to head with his president over Korea.

What then is to be expected when it comes to the conflict with ISIS in Iraq, the complex, multi-faceted Syrian civil war, and America’s longest war of all, in Afghanistan?  All signs point to more of the same. Open up a newspaper or check out a relevant website and you’ll find, for example, that U.S. Afghan commander General John Nicholson wants a new mini-surge of American troops dispatched into that country, while the U.S. commander in the fight against ISIS, General Stephen Townsend, may require yet more ground troops to “win” in Iraq and Syria.

More is the mantra of America’s generals.  It’s how they measure their influence as well as their success.  In this, they remind me of the gangster Johnny Rocco in the movie “Key Largo.”  When Humphrey Bogart asks Rocco what he wants, Rocco pauses, after which Bogart has the answer that Rocco seizes upon: More.  Will he ever get enough?  Rocco answers: Well, I never have.  No, I guess I won’t.

Even though Trump has promised a major hike in military spending for 2018, the Pentagon is already clamoring for more.  Like Johnny Rocco, America’s generals and admirals can never get enough.

5. Finally, a dire lesson from history. When strong men seek to take over a government, they first seek to seize or neutralize the military and police forces of their country. It’s a time-tested formula.  Consider Trump’s early actions.  From his hiring of generals and his promises of scores of billions more for the Pentagon as well as to his hiring of good buddy Jeff Sessions as Attorney General and his firing of James Comey at the FBI, Trump is well on his way to winning over and controlling the agencies of violence and enforcement in the U.S.

Does America await its very own Reichstag moment?

More on Trump’s Generals

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W.J. Astore

In a longer article for TomDispatch.com, I recently wrote about Donald Trump’s team of generals for national defense and homeland security. Trump wants four senior retired generals, two from the Army and two from the Marine Corps, to serve as his senior civilian advisers in matters of defense and security.

Here’s the point: You simply can’t have civilian control of the military when you appoint senior generals to these positions.

I’m astonished more Americans aren’t outraged at this. It’s a sign of how much militarism has gripped our nation and government, as well as the sweep and scope of the national security state.

I was reading Samuel Hynes’ excellent book, The Soldiers’ Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War, and came across two passages that resonated with me. In talking about war as a culture, Hynes notes that “Military traditions, values, and patterns of behavior penetrate every aspect of army [and Marine Corps] life and make the most ordinary acts and feelings different.”

The generals Trump is hiring are all military careerists, men whose “traditions, values, and patterns of behavior” are steeped in the ways of the Army and Marine Corps, affecting even “the most ordinary acts and feelings.” Their behavior, their commitments, their loyalties, their world views, are the antithesis to civilian culture and to the ethos of democracy. (For example, General James Mattis, Trump’s selection as Secretary of Defense, is most often described as a “warrior-monk,” a man with a Spartan-like dedication to war.  But would Athens have anointed a Spartan, even as its minister of war?)

Again, the point is not to attack the military. It’s that the U.S. government already has plenty of generals in charge, wielding enormous authority. Trump’s decision to add yet another layer of military authority to his government makes it less of a democracy and more of a junta.

A second point from Hynes. He notes how most citizen-soldiers in America’s military past were not war-lovers, but that a few were, notably General George S. Patton. In the same breath, Hynes notes that dictators like Hitler and Mussolini “loved war.”

Which American general does Trump profess to admire the most? George S. Patton. And who among his generals most resembles Patton as a “real” warrior? According to Trump, it’s General Mattis.

Again, the point is not to attack the military, but rather to note the U.S. national security state already has plenty of warriors and warfighters in charge. Putting an alleged Patton-clone in charge of the Pentagon represents an abrogation of two centuries of American tradition that insisted on civilian supremacy over the military.

Given his inflammatory tweets about nuclear arms races with their “bring it on” mentality, Trump has all the makings of tinpot provocateur, an unstable military poseur who likes to speak loudly while swinging a nuclear-tipped stick. Will Trump’s generals, his Pattons and MacArthurs, serve as a check to his provocations and his posturings? It doesn’t seem likely.

Congress should reject Trump’s choices for Secretary of Defense (Mattis) and Homeland Security (Kelly). Not because these retired generals are bad men, but because they are the wrong kind of people. If you want civilian control of the military (and don’t we still want that?), you need to hire true civilians. Men and women whose identities haven’t been forged in armories. Independent thinkers and patriots with some history of dissent.

How about someone like Daniel Ellsberg for Secretary of Defense? And, since global warming is a huge threat to the U.S., how about Bill McKibben for Homeland Security?

After all, whether they’re in or out of uniform, the U.S. government already has plenty of generals.

The Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, and Lying

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Hannah Arendt (Arendt Center at Bard College)

W.J. Astore

In November 1971, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt published “Lying in Politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers” in the New York Review of Books.  Earlier that year, Daniel Ellsberg had shared those highly classified government papers with the U.S. media.  They revealed a persistent and systematic pattern of lying and deception by the government about U.S. progress in the Vietnam War.  By undermining the people’s trust in government, lies and deception were destabilizing democracy in America, Arendt said.  Furthermore, America was witnessing two new and related categories of lying.  The first was lying as public relations, the creation and distribution of images substituting for facts and premised in human manipulability (a Madison Avenue approach to war and foreign policy).  The second was lying tied to a country’s reputation as embraced by professional “problem-solvers” as the basis for political action.  Both categories of lying constituted a crisis to the republic.

Widespread lying during the Vietnam War, Arendt explained, had not been aimed at the enemy, as lies often are in war.  Rather, governmental lying had targeted Americans.  The enemy could hardly be fooled, but most Americans could – at least for a time.  Throughout the war, Arendt noted, senior U.S. government and military officials made decisions about Vietnam with the firm knowledge they could not be carried out, a form of self-deception facilitated by constant goal-shifting.  As goals changed and chaos mounted, U.S. officials then became driven by concerns about saving face.  Image-making and image-saving took precedence over reality. The truth about Vietnam – that the U.S. was losing the war – hurt, therefore it was denied, especially in public discourse.

Official lies can fool even the officials themselves, a fact Pulitzer prize-winning reporter David Halberstam noted in his prescient book, “The Making of a Quagmire,” published in 1965.  With respect to the Kennedy Administration’s support of the corrupt Diem/Nhu government of South Vietnam, Halberstam wrote that:

Having failed to get [the Diem/Nhu regime to make needed] reforms, our officials said that these reforms were taking place; having failed to improve the demoralized state of the [South] Vietnamese Army, the Americans talked about a new enthusiasm in the Army; having failed to change the tactics of the [South Vietnamese] military, they talked about bold new tactics which were allegedly driving the Communists back.  For the essence of our policy was: There is no place else to go.

When reporters began to file stories which tended to show that the [U.S.] policy was not working, its authors, President Kennedy and General [Maxwell] Taylor, clung to it stubbornly.  At least part of the explanation for this apparent blindness is that although they knew things were going wrong, they felt that the alternatives were worse.

This “blindness,” a sustained willingness to deny harsh truths about the Vietnam War, persisted throughout the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations.  U.S. leaders continued to package and sell a losing effort as a winning product. It helped, in Arendt’s words, that U.S. officials had “a truly amazing and entirely honest ignorance of the historically pertinent background” when it came to Vietnam.  Their ignorance was “honest” in the sense they did not believe facts were all that important to success.  What was needed, U.S. officials concluded, were not incontestable facts but the right premises, hypotheses, and theories (such as the infamous Domino Theory) to fit Vietnam within prevailing Cold War orthodoxies.  Overwhelming applications of U.S. military power would serve to actuate these premises, facts be damned.

Upon taking power in 1969, the Nixon Administration, which had promised a quick and honorable end to the war, continued the lies of previous administrations.  Even as Nixon and Henry Kissinger spoke publicly of peace with honor, they talked privately of a lost war.  To shift the blame for defeat, they cast about for scapegoats (as corroborated recently in the HBO documentary, “Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words”).  Kissinger settled on South Vietnamese “incompetence” as the primary scapegoat.  He reassured Nixon that, after a “decent interval” between U.S. withdrawal and the inevitable South Vietnamese collapse, most Americans would come to see Vietnam as a regrettable (and forgettable) “backwater.”  Naturally, harsh facts such as these were ones Nixon and Kissinger refused to share with the American people.

For Hannah Arendt, truth as represented by verifiable facts is the chief stabilizing factor in politics.  Lacking truths held in common, action is compromised, judgment is flawed, reality is denied.  Deception feeds self-deception until politics is poisoned and collective action for the common good is disrupted.  Yet lies cannot be eliminated simply by moral outrage, Arendt noted.  Rather, truth must be fought for even as humility before truth must be cultivated.

The American people must fight for the truth: that is the lesson of Arendt’s essay.

Next Week: Part II: More Lies and Deception in the Iraq War of 2003

Henry Kissinger’s Big Stick: Bombing

Kissinger's foreign policy
Kissinger’s foreign policy

W.J. Astore

Greg Grandin has a new book on Henry Kissinger and a new article at TomDispatch.com.  Kissinger, writes Grandin, had an affinity (or perhaps an avidity) for power, especially air power, as a way of demonstrating his (and America’s) resolve.

Notes Grandin:

Henry Kissinger is, of course, not singularly responsible for the evolution of the U.S. national security state into a monstrosity. That state has had many administrators. But his example — especially his steadfast support for bombing as an instrument of “diplomacy” and his militarization of the Persian Gulf — has coursed through the decades, shedding a spectral light on the road that has brought us to a state of eternal war …

Kissinger was very hands-on. “Strike here in this area,” Sitton recalled Kissinger telling him, “or strike here in that area.” The bombing galvanized the national security adviser. The first raid occurred on March 18, 1969.K really excited,” Bob Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, wrote in his diary. “He came beaming in [to the Oval Office] with the report.”

In fact, he would supervise every aspect of the bombing. As journalist Seymour Hersh later wrote, “When the military men presented a proposed bombing list, Kissinger would redesign the missions, shifting a dozen planes, perhaps, from one area to another, and altering the timing of the bombing runs… [He] seemed to enjoy playing the bombardier.” (That joy wouldn’t be limited to Cambodia. According to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, when the bombing of North Vietnam finally started up again, Kissinger “expressed enthusiasm at the size of the bomb craters.”) A Pentagon report released in 1973 stated that “Henry A. Kissinger approved each of the 3,875 Cambodia bombing raids in 1969 and 1970” — the most secretive phase of the bombing — “as well as the methods for keeping them out of the newspapers.”

All told, between 1969 and 1973, the U.S. dropped half-a-million tons of bombs on Cambodia alone, killing at least 100,000 civilians. And don’t forgetLaos and both North and South Vietnam. “It’s wave after wave of planes. You see, they can’t see the B-52 and they dropped a million pounds of bombs,” Kissinger told Nixon after the April 1972 bombing of North Vietnam’s port city of Haiphong, as he tried to reassure the president that the strategy was working: “I bet you we will have had more planes over there in one day than Johnson had in a month… Each plane can carry about 10 times the load [a] World War II plane could carry.”

As the months passed, however, the bombing did nothing to force Hanoi to the bargaining table.  It did, on the other hand, help Kissinger in his interoffice rivalries. His sole source of power was Nixon, who was a bombing advocate. So Kissinger embraced his role as First Bombardier to show the tough-guy militarists the president had surrounded himself with that he was the “hawk of hawks.” And yet, in the end, even Nixon came to see that the bombing campaigns were a dead end. “K. We have had 10 years of total control of the air in Laos and V.Nam,” Nixon wrote him over a top-secret report on the efficacy of bombing, “The result = Zilch.” (This was in January 1972, three months before Kissinger assured Nixon that “wave after wave” of bombers would do the trick).

During those four-and a half years when the U.S. military dropped more than 6,000,000 tons of bombs on Southeast Asia, Kissinger revealed himself to be not a supreme political realist, but the planet’s supreme idealist.  He refused to quit when it came to a policy meant to bring about a world he believed heought to live in, one where he could, by the force of the material power of the U.S. military, bend poor peasant countries like Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam to his will — as opposed to the one he did live in, where bomb as he might he couldn’t force Hanoi to submit. As he put it at the time, “I refuse to believe that a little fourth-rate power like North Vietnam does not have a breaking point.”

In fact, that bombing campaign did have one striking effect: it destabilized Cambodia, provoking a 1970 coup that, in turn, provoked a 1970 American invasion, which only broadened the social base of the insurgency growing in the countryside, leading to escalating U.S. bombing runs that spread to nearly the whole country, devastating it and creating the conditions for the rise to power of the genocidal Khmer Rouge…

Bombing for Kissinger was a way to show he was tough within an inner circle around Nixon that put a premium on toughness. It was also a way to minimize casualties to Americans while demonstrating a total disregard for casualties among the peoples of Southeast Asia.

Kissinger the bombardier was seduced by the seemingly god-like potential of air power — the ability to strike from on high, to smite evil-doers and those who would thwart Kissinger’s designs.  Best of all, Kissinger never had to bloody his own hands. (Can you imagine Kissinger in a knife fight?  Of course not.  But you can imagine him gleefully gushing over bombing reports and bomb craters as bomber jets knifed through the sky.)

There’s a “Star Trek” episode in which Captain Kirk says, “Above all else, a god needs compassion.”  Kissinger the “air power god” had no compassion.  It was all about power.  The little people who refused to kowtow to him — the Vietnamese, the Cambodians, the Chileans, and so on — these people were simply abstractions for Kissinger.  Put differently, they were pawns on the geopolitical chessboard, to be sacrificed at will by self-styled grandmasters like Kissinger.

In his book “Secrets,” Daniel Ellsberg captured Kissinger’s blithe disregard for the lives of others in a probing question about Vietnamization.  Was it moral, Ellsberg asked, to turn the war over to the South Vietnamese, knowing they were going to incur high casualties while fighting North Vietnam, even as American troops withdrew?  Kissinger had no answer, one senses because the morality of his policies didn’t much matter to him.  The goal was to save America’s “face” in Vietnam; for Kissinger the fates of the peoples of Southeast Asia paled in comparison to the importance of American prestige.

In his deliberately ponderous Germanic accent, Kissinger spoke softly as he wielded the big stick of American bombing. It didn’t work then, nor is it working today for those who still worship at the altar of Kissinger’s Realpolitik.