The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy (07. Full Spectrum Dominance)

[I am posting rough drafts of the chapters from a book I am writing about World War II and its moral legacy. My hope in posting these chapters is that I might receive helpful counsel. So, please, read the chapters and let me know what you think. All comments, questions, and challenges are welcome and will be most useful as I revise the chapters this winter and spring.]

7. Full Spectrum Dominance

Ted Grimsrud—January 4, 2011

The Cold War ends

On a sunny spring day, April 1992, I biked to work as usual. Along the bike path in west Eugene, Oregon, I suddenly stopped and paid attention to what I was feeling. I realized a weight of anxiety I had lived with going back to the civil defense drills of my early childhood, was gone. At times I had been quite self-conscious about this anxiety, but mostly it was simply a part of life, something always there but usually in the background.

This new sense of relief almost overwhelmed me. As I stopped my bike and simply reveled in it, I reflected how I never actually thought this day would come. All through the 1980s, with the Reagan arms buildup and rhetoric about the Soviet Union as the evil empire, the Contra War in Nicaragua, talk of an impending bloodbath in South Africa that could turn nuclear, the squashing of the Solidarity Movement in Poland, to imagine that in the early months of 1992 we’d see the end of the Cold War and the end of apartheid—essentially achieved nonviolently—seemed like pure fantasy.

Of course, as events proved over time, the commitment of American policymakers to “full spectrum dominance” throughout the world, militarily and economically, managed to transform this moment of relief and hope into deepened anxiety and insecurity. For that brief moment in 1992, though, the basic story I have recounted that began with American entry into World War II, an extraordinarily discouraging story, came to an unexpected (and largely undeserved, on the American side) moment of possibility, where the ideals of the Atlantic Charter actually seemed achievable.

During the presidency of Ronald Reagan (1981-89), the forces advocating a dramatic expansion of the already enormous American reliance on military violence gain prominence. The administration of the relatively moderate Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, actually had begun the reaction against the post-Vietnam War reduction in American militarism. Carter’s turn toward militarism emerged partly in response to the Iranian revolution that had deposed the autocratic Shah and turned against the Shah’s longtime American enablers, partly in response to the perceived vulnerability of the Soviet Union in its invasion of Afghanistan, partly simply due to Carter’s inability to challenge the Pentagon’s power.

Though Reagan campaigned against Carter’s alleged dovishness, and Reagan took full credit for the expanded militarism, in actuality Reagan only continued on the trajectory Carter had initiated. Reagan’s policies included major expansions in nuclear weaponry and a militarized reaction to the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua. Both of these efforts actually galvanized large-scale peace movements. In time, these peace movements played a major role in pressuring Reagan to a surprising openness to initiatives from the Soviet Union that contributed to the end of the Cold War.[1]

Reagan surrounded himself with militant cold warriors, and he clearly supported the reactionary policies his administration implemented. However, he also was always a bit of an outsider in relation to the Washington military-industrial elite. His background was as a Hollywood actor and Californian politician with little connection to the world of Washington. He affirmed the quest for American world domination, but he also had a strong desire for approval from the American people.

So, Reagan was shaken when opposition to his acceleration of the arms race expanded greatly with the sudden emergence of the Nuclear Freeze Movement early in his presidency. Then, the war in Central America that drove hundreds of thousands of refugees into the United States triggered a widespread anti-war movement in the U.S. The opposition to Reagan’s Central American policies led to Congress passing laws to limit American support of the Contras—laws Reagan circumvented. The so-called Iran-Contra scandal led to several Reagan administration members being indicted and convicted for illegal activities.

Reagan finessed the Freeze Movement by advocating a new program, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or “Star Wars”). SDI promised to render nuclear weapons obsolete though the capability of destroying incoming warheads. No matter that SDI was pure fantasy that never remotely was practicable, that it was mainly fueled by the weapons industry that made billions from it, and that even if effective it would have the effect of destabilizing the Cold War by empowering American first-strike capability. A significant amount of the public that had support the Freeze Movement bought Reagan’s hype and support for an actual Freeze dwindled. However, the Iran-Contra scandal heightened public anger with Reagan once again.

Reagan, hence, was prepared to take steps to restore his popularity. Then, the opportunity for him to take such steps came as a gift—a gift from an unexpected place, the “Evil Empire” itself. The Soviet Union found itself with a new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev—a leader different than any the Soviets (or Americans, for that matter) had had in power throughout the modern era.

Simultaneously with Reagan facing the fallout from the Iran-Contra scandal, in March Gorbachev made several serious moves to break the momentum of the arms race. Surprisingly, Reagan attempted to respond creatively rather than simply toe the party line espoused by his militarist advisers. Reagan’s commitment to the fantasy defense offered by SDI did at first hinder his willingness to take Gorbachev’s initiatives seriously. However, due to the way the Iran-Contra events undermined Reagan’s popularity, the president felt the need to find some way to regain his standing with the American people.

James Carroll summarizes: “Reagan was savvy enough to recognize that he was in danger of joining Richard Nixon in disgrace, a president who broke the law and lied about it. Unlike Nixon, Reagan was a man who lived for the approbation of the people arrayed before him—his viewers, his fans….The horror of Nixon’s fate emerged in Reagan’s mind as a version of what awaited him. Reagan realized just in time that what the new Soviet leader was holding out to him was a lifeline, a way to rescue his reputation, his very presidency—and he took it.”[2]

Gorbachev understood, in ways probably no other major leader in the U.S or U.S.S.R. in the years following World War II ever did, that the arms races was a race to destruction. He resolved to do something about it. Almost immediately after gaining power, Gorbachev took several steps to diminish Cold War tensions. The Soviets unilaterally ended deployment of their missiles in Europe, and followed that step with calls for an ending of nuclear weapons tests and deep cuts in nuclear weaponry. Gorbachev replaced longtime foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko (an unreconstructed Cold Warrior), with Eduard Shevardnadze, a leader much more compatible with Gorbachev’s “new thinking.” “Gorbachev simply reversed Soviet doctrine. Moscow had argued that only socialists would survive nuclear war; Gorbachev said it would spare no one—not even socialists.”[3]

Reagan’s advisors, mostly deeply formed by the paranoid view of the Soviet Union established as the norm for American policymakers back in Truman’s day, responded to Gorbachev’s initiatives with suspicion. Reagan himself continued his strident anti-Soviet rhetoric in the early days of Gorbachev’s rule. However, he did agree to a summit meeting in November, 1985—the first American-Soviet summit in Reagan’s presidency. This meeting, while not resulting in major agreements, did help Gorbachev recognize in Reagan a sincerity about ridding the world of nuclear weapons—a recognition crucial for encouraging Gorbachev to continue his peace initiatives.[4]

Perhaps the key element of Gorbachev’s approach was his recognition of how hard liners on both sides of the Cold War empower each other. In James Carroll’s words, “martial belligerence in Washington always strengthened the hand of the paranoid anti-American ideologues in Moscow.” So Gorbachev needed to find ways to prevail over the Cold Warriors within the Soviet leadership community. Ironically, the very acts by Reaganite hardliners that were justified as means to defeat the Soviets actually had the effect of strengthening the hand of those most hostile to the United States.[5]

However, Gorbachev was resolute in forcing the hardliners to give way. Reagan did not match this level of commitment, but his desire to find some kind of way to move away from nuclear conflagration to keep Gorbachev’s initiatives coming. And Reagan, who operated more on the level of relationships than ideology, did feel a personal connection with Gorbachev.

American suspicions that Gorbachev was merely engaging in propaganda rather than making fundamental changes in the Soviet Cold War stance relied on ignorance about the changes occurring within the Soviet Union. Gorbachev raised key issues in February 1986 at the Communist Party Congress. He called for an elimination of nuclear weaponry by the end of the century, and backed that goal up by announcing significant changes in his nation’s military philosophy: “instead of superiority, he was aiming at ‘reasonable sufficiency’; instead of class conflict, he called for an ‘interdependent and in many ways integral world’; instead of threatened mutual destruction, he proposed that the United States and the Soviet Union seek ‘comprehensive mutual security.’” Gorbachev asserted that the Soviets, in a break from past practice, would accept intrusive verification measures for arms reduction agreements. Despite American insistence on retaining SDI, the Soviets would still work to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear weapons. Finally, Gorbachev announced an ending of the war in Afghanistan with an admission of Soviet defeat.[6]

Gorbachev and Reagan met again in October 1986, in Reykjavik, Iceland. In one of the more tragic elements of our story about the moral legacy of World War II, the two leaders came very close to agreeing to dismantling their nuclear weapons systems. Only Reagan’s refusal to give up on his SDI fantasy (totally supported by his advisors) prevented this agreement.

This is how Carroll summarizes the kind of thinking that would have led Reagan’s Secretary of State, George Schultz (a relative moderate who recognized that the SDI would never actually work), to support Reagan turning away in the end from Gorbachev’s proposal: “Such a drastic dismantling of nuclear arsenals, while not necessarily destroying at a stroke the Cold War structure on which the American economy depended, would have set off tremors whose short- and long-term effects were impossible to calculate. The nuclear arsenal was the ground on which the national security system stood, and that system defined the politics, economy and culture of the United States, indeed of the West. A stock market crash, economic dislocation, mass unemployment, loss of Washington’s dominance over its allies, European outrage, the Pentagon deprived of its central place in government, the service branches demanding huge allocations for a conventional buildup—such consequences would have followed, immediately or over time, from a Gorbachev-Reagan nuclear abolition deal.”[7] Paranoia continued to determine American policies—even when it became clear that the Soviet threat itself was ending.

Thought disappointed by Reagan’s intransigence at Reykjavik, Gorbachev did not stop his campaign to end the nuclear nightmare. In November, 1986, the Soviets informed their Eastern European satellites that the Soviet military would no longer be available to support unpopular governments, opening the door for dramatic political changes. Then, in December, Soviet troops left Afghanistan.

Despite the American’s insistence that all issues relation to arms control be negotiated together, a stance that greatly limited change in any one area, Gorbachev went ahead and announced in February 1987 that the Soviets were going to separate the issue of intermediate-range nuclear missiles from other issues. “He proposed that the United States and the Soviet Union sign an agreement ‘without delay’ to remove all such missiles from Europe within five years. This was Moscow’s acceptance without conditions of the ‘zero option’ that Reagan’s doctrinaire arms controllers had put forward five years earlier, an offer they made assuming a Soviet rejection.”[8]

American leaders, including especially the CIA, remained skeptical of Gorbachev’s motives and argued that the Soviets were still cynically manipulating public opinion in hopes of furthering their drive for world domination. As a consequence of this skepticism, the U.S. continued to arm anti-Soviet Afghan fighters (such as those who founded Al Qaeda) long after the Soviets had left. Arms control officials sought to undermine Soviet initiatives by registering numerous objections to Gorbachev’s proposal concerning the intermediate missiles. These included absolute insistence on on-site inspections, a step the Soviets had never before been willing to accept. This time, though, Gorbachev said yes, shocking the Americans and exposing their bluff. The Americans became the ones unwilling to accept arms control measures if they involved inspections. “The fifty-year myth of American openness to inspections was punctured in an instant.”[9]

However, for once an American president was willing to resist the tide toward increasing militarism. Despite his advisers, Reagan said yes to Gorbachev’s proposal concerning intermediate missiles. This time, an American president did take steps toward genuine disarmament. The treaty was signed, December 8, 1987.

Gorbachev continued to take initiatives toward ending the Cold War. In 1988, he gave a powerful speech before the United Nations. He stated: “Necessity of the principle of freedom of choice is clear. Denying that right of peoples, no matter what the pretext for doing so, no matter what words are used to conceal it, means infringing even that unstable balance that it has been possible to achieve. Freedom of choice is a universal principle, and there should be no exceptions.” He went on to renounce the reliance on violence that had been required for the Soviet empire to remain together. This would involve, he declared, a reduction from the Soviet military of 500,000 soldiers—a move linked with Soviet withdrawal from Eastern Europe.[10]

Self-determination. Disarmament. The core values of the Atlantic Charter. The values marginalized by American foreign policy for more than a generation. They were back on the table now. The next several years would determine whether the commitments of Churchill and Roosevelt’s statement would be recoverable in the United States.

Gorbachev offered his reforms in order to save the Soviet Union. As it turned out, he was too late. The momentum of his turning toward self-determination kept increasing, and the Soviet satellite states sought separation. At this point, Gorbachev showed how committed he was to his words spoken at the United Nations. Rather than seeking to use force to stop the exodus out of the empire, he kept the sword in its sheathe. The Cold War ended—and by the end of 1991, the Soviet Union was no more.

Now the ball was squarely in America’s court. Going back to the Truman Doctrine, the United States had always justified its military preparedness, its extraordinary expansion of its nuclear weapons capability, the practices of the CIA, the willingness to go to war in places such as Korea and Vietnam, on the need to resist Soviet “expansionism.” Even the change in terminology from “War Department” to “Department of Defense” reflected this rationale—who do we need to be defended from? The Soviet Union in its quest for world dominance.

Now, the Soviet Union was no more. Without this enemy, would the priorities that shaped American foreign policy change? This was what World War II was for, right? A time of genuine peace characterized by self-determination everywhere on earth, a time of enhancing key human freedoms.

Gulf War

The Soviet Union’s withdrawal from the Cold War combined with various other events to move the world closer to peace than it had been anytime since Hitler came into power in 1933. One symbol of this move toward peace was the clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that since 1947 has measured international tensions, especially as related to the possibility of nuclear war. The clocks shows how close we are to the midnight of nuclear conflagration.[11]

In 1947, the first clock read seven minutes to midnight. When the Soviets successfully tested their first nuclear weapons in 1949, the clocked moved to three minutes to midnight. Four years later, after the United States decided to produce hydrogen bombs the clocked move to two minutes until midnight, the closest it has ever been. With the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, the clocked moved back to twelve minutes before midnight. Reagan’s acceleration of the arms race in the 1980s moved the clock back to three minutes until midnight.

Then, the world, it seems, was pulled back again from the brink. As we have seen, initiatives taken by the Soviet Union drove this pulling back. By 1991, when the Soviet Union disbanded, allowing a peaceful move toward genuine independence by Warsaw Pact nations and even parts of the U.S.S.R. itself, and when the nuclear arsenals of both the Soviets and the Americans were reduced and taken off hair-trigger alert, the clock moved all the way back to seventeen minutes before midnight.

That movement toward world peace brings us to a crucial moment in our story. We have seen so far that the main moral legacy of World War II for the United States has been a tremendous expansion of the role of military power, preparedness, the willingness to intervene throughout the world, the tendency to engage in undeclared war, and a general reduction of democratic practices in the American federal government. Using the core values of the Atlantic Charter as our key criteria, we have seen a consistent failure on the part of American policy-makers to seek for genuine economic and political self-determination “everywhere in the world” and a focus on armament rather than disarmament.

Through the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the continuation of American militarism was consistently justified as necessary in order to counter the threat of the totalitarian “evil empire” bent on world conquest. That is, the U.S. deferred disarmament and fostering genuine self-determination due to the need to resist the world’s main enemy of democracy and peace. So, by 1991, the U.S. faced the big test. The threat is over; was it time for a “peace dividend”? Was it time to move more overtly toward implementing the ideals America supposedly fought World War II to further?

In January 1992, Ronald Reagan’s successor as president, George H.W. Bush asserted in his State of the Union speech that the United States indeed had “won the Cold War.” The underlying question remained—what did this “victory” signify? Things could have gone two ways. The victory could have meant, now that our enemy is no more we will, as we have done in past wars prior to World War II, demobilize, draw the military down, and invest instead in social welfare. Certainly in 1992, the broader world and the United States itself could have used such investment. Or, the victory could have meant, if the commitment to the values of the Atlantic Charter truly had been forgotten, a chance for the world’s one remaining “superpower” to expand its domination.

The initiatives that the Soviet Union, under Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership, took to reduce the arms race and the nuclear threat had at best only been partially reciprocated by the United States. Though the main rationale for the on-going American weapons growth had been removed, the weapons systems (and the forces that had advocated their growth) remained. The U.S. experienced no “peace dividend” with the end of the Cold War. In fact, one of the main artifacts of the Cold War, the European alliance called NATO, did not follow the Warsaw Pact disbanding but to the contrary, NATO took the opportunity to expand. Whereas former Soviet republics such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine immediately got rid of their nuclear weapons at the point of their independence and affirmed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the United States continued to defy that Treaty by continuing to develop nuclear weapons. But now, who were those weapons to be aimed at? And why?

The failure of the U.S. to take this opportunity to turn away from its militarism provides a perspective for looking at the entire history of the Cold War. Time after time, when it appeared that relations might improve, new threats emerged to nip the improvement in the bud. “Sputnik, the so-called missile gap, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Sandinista revolution, the Iranian hostage crisis, the downing of KAL 007, the Socialist takeover of the Caribbean Island of Grenada, even the attempted assassination of a pope. Each incident ‘rescued’ Cold War rigidities, reinforced the profitable insecurities of the military-industrial complex, and kept the Niagara current of the arms race flowing. This dynamic always assumed the permanent malevolence of a Kremlin-centered enemy.”[12]

First the initiatives of Gorbachev, then the actual dismantling of the Soviet Union, threatened to undermine this militarism-enhancing dynamic in the early 1990s. As American policymakers watched the transformation of the Soviet Union, they may well have realized that this time the threat that justified so much of the impetus for American militarism actually was going away—and with it, perhaps their own power as tenders of that militarism would diminish. And they may well have feared the consequent collapse of their own empire. As Carroll points out, American “global power projection, throughout forty years, had been at the service as much of expanding markets for the U.S. economy as of blocking Moscow. In fact, Russia was the least of it. The global system itself was in danger of splintering, as the ethnic, religious, and economic differences that the Cold War had suppressed began to show themselves with power. A new kind of suppression would have to be imposed, and fast. [President George H. W.] Bush and his circle, centered in [Defense Secretary Richard] Cheney’s Pentagon, were implicitly charged with protecting the U.S. economic hegemony that the Cold War had made possible, and they understood that that required them to protect, above all else, ‘the enormous machine set in motion in the 1950s, a perpetual motion machine that was built for war.’”[13]

The Bush administration faced significant pressure, though, both in Congress and from the broader American public, to shape their policies by this new situation. Our enemy is gone; let us ourselves change our priorities from militarism toward peaceful public investments. Reluctantly, the Defense Department agreed, for the first time since the demobilization following World War II, to cut the size of the military by as much as twenty-five percent. Top military leaders opposed these cuts, mostly because they feared they would only be the first step in a series of deeper cuts that would solidify the end of the Cold War. But at the last minute, things changed. “The date of the announcement was August 1, 1990. The next day, against almost all expectations—and certainly against CIA intelligence estimates—Saddam Hussein’s army crossed the border into Kuwait.”[14]

We may note how history repeated itself with these events. Forty years earlier, North Korea crossed the border with South Korea and began the Korean War just as President Truman appeared ready to succumb to budgetary pressures and solidify substantial military cuts. Historian Bruce Cumings wrote of the Korean conflict, “Just in time, it snatched defense and military production lines from the jaws of oblivion.’”[15] What followed Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait echoed how the opportunity to go to war in Korea in 1950 enabled the militarists to resist pressure then greatly to reduce military spending. We will see below how President Bush’s response in 1990 prefigured how his son, George W. Bush, would take the opportunity presented by the September 11, 2001 terrorist acts again to expand American militarism.

Saddam Hussein had been a key leader in Iraq since 1968 and had ruled ruthlessly as president since 1979—largely with American support. As Carroll puts it, “Saddam Hussein, truly a son of a bitch, had been, in Franklin Roosevelt’s words about Somoza, ‘our son of a bitch.’ He had taken power by force and been supported by the United States in its power plays against Moscow and Tehran. His worst crimes, including his genocidal gassing of Kurds and Shiites in the early 1980s, had never drawn protests from Washington, but now those crimes were run up the flagpole of American indignation as if committed yesterday. Suddenly Saddam Hussein was Adolf Hitler reincarnate.”[16]

Saddam had the misfortune of making his move against Kuwait at a time when it served the interests of American leaders to pursue a military confrontation over what would have, most other times, been an occasion for diplomatic resolution. As the U.S.-imposed deadline of January 15, 1991 for the removal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait approached, Saddam offered to withdraw with certain conditions. Rather than continue the discussion, Bush ordered the bombing to commence on January 16. What followed was a decisive American military victory called Operation Desert Storm. After driving back the Iraqi military and causing immense casualties, the Americans stopped short of overthrowing Saddam altogether, instead beginning a decade of severe economic sanctions that helped transform Iraq from one of the most prosperous Middle Eastern nations into one of the most impoverished.

Bush’s decision to pursue a military resolution to what easily could have been resolved diplomatically had enormous long-term consequences. With this step, the U.S. entered in a much deeper way into the morass of Middle East conflicts. Just as President Carter’s initiating of military assistance in Afghanistan set the stage for on-going complications, so too did Carter’s articulation during his presidency of the “Carter Doctrine”: Any threat to American interests in the Middle East would be met with military force, set the stage for the 1991 Gulf War.

The Americans now established a permanent and massive direct military presence in the Middle East—in contrast to the earlier post-World War II era where the Americans relied on surrogates such as the Shah of Iran and the leaders of Saudi Arabia. The decisive American victory over Iraq actually only problematized the American role in the region, triggering an uprising of anti-American sentiment that has yet to peak twenty years later.

The Gulf War, thus, succeeded in turning the tide away from the “peace dividend.” The U.S. was now well on the way of finding an effective replacement for the Soviet Union as the enemy that justifies the national security system. By placing the American military square in the middle of the Arab world, the Bush administration created an environment for the emergence of “terrorism” as the new threat.

Carroll summarizes: “The war for Kuwait’s sovereignty made a joke of Arab sovereignty. It ended with Saddam still in place as an American-sponsored bulwark against Iran, free to savage his Shiite and Kurdish minorities without a hint of U.S. objection. American rhetoric hardly bothered to cloak American purposes. As the hundred of thousands of GIs littered the Arabian desert with empty Evian bottles, their very presence profaned a sacred territory. One of those motivated to a new militancy by this combined experience of sacrilege and shame was a self-anointed messianic mujahideen member named Osama bin Laden. What George H.W. Bush really inaugurated…was a new world disorder that would show itself with staggering brutality [a decade] later.”[17]

The clock of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists began a gradual move back towards midnight. The tremendous opportunity the United States was given to turn from the abyss by and large was squandered.

Ironically, although Bush’s decision to go to war in January 1991 triggered record high presidential approval ratings, less than two years later Americans voted him out of office. Bill Clinton’s successful campaign focused on domestic issues—he had little experience with or even interest in foreign affairs. When Clinton began his presidency, he appointed as his key foreign affairs policy makers people who generally shared his interest in scaling back on militarism. However, from the very start, Clinton put little energy into challenging the Pentagon and his appointees generally distinguished themselves by their ineffectiveness.

As a consequence, during Clinton’s eight years in office, military spending actually increased and the Pentagon’s favorite power projection programs met with little opposition. Little was done to stem the conflictual momentum started in the Arab world by the Gulf War and expanded American military presence.

Clinton’s inability to exercise authority in relation to the Pentagon meant that the militarism reignited by the Gulf War could continue to grow unabated, despite Clinton’s best intentions. The military budget, in these eight years following the ending of the Cold War, actually increased from $260 billion in 1992 to $300 billion in 2000. The U.S. also stepped away from commitments Reagan and Bush had made to move toward disarmament, most notably reneging on the agreement not to expand NATO. As Carroll notes, “A condition of Gorbachev’s acceptance of a unified Germany in NATO was that the alliance—created, after all, expressly to oppose Moscow—would move no further east. Gorbachev understood [Bush’s Secretary of State] James Baker as having firmly promised as much—‘not one inch eastward.’ But the Pentagon had never accepted that. Getting former members of the Warsaw Pact into NATO, beginning with Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, was less a security question, now that Russia was in decline, than an economic one, for Moscow’s former satellite nations, needed an arms buildup from scratch, represented a major new market for the Pentagon’s industrial partners. This was an argument Clinton could understand, and as a politician he saw the benefit of pleasing U.S. voters with ties to Eastern Europe… Instead of dismantling NATO, as the disappearance of its Cold War rationale might have suggested, an unfettered Pentagon, trumping traditional State Department concerns, was free to turn it into an enriching new source of power.[18]

September 11, 2001

After the “suicide bombers” hijacked and flew the two airplanes into the Pentagon and World Trade Center, September 11, 2001, many commentators drew comparisons with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. Certainly these two dates are etched into the consciousness of many Americans and will be for a long time. These were said to be the two successful foreign strikes against the United States (though most people making this point don’t seem to remember that in 1941, Hawaii was a colonial outpost that had been annexed by the U.S. less than half a century earlier, not yet a state), both resulting in around 3,000 deaths.

The most striking parallel between Pearl Harbor and 9/11 surely has to be similar outcomes following the original incidents. In both cases, the U.S. president took the opportunity to push the country into major military conflicts. The actual unfolding of the conflicts in the two cases was quite different, but the use of the attacks to galvanize public opinion for war and for greatly expanded military empowerment they followed pretty much the same path.

One could say, though, that the consequences of these two events could not be more different. It may even turn out that Pearl Harbor and 9/11 will be seen as bookends, one event marking the beginning and the other the end (or at least the beginning of the end) of the Pax Americana. In the case of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese made a terrible miscalculation; their attack did deal a severe blow to the American navy, but in the longer run triggered the destruction of the Japanese empire that had launched the attack. In the case of the September 11 suicide attacks, the perpetrators likely succeeded far beyond their expectations. They provoked the United States to initiate two wars that both severely damaged American interests in numerous ways, wars that as they proceeded gathered strong support from many people throughout the Middle East who saw them as an opportunity to resist American militarism.

The Clinton administration strengthened the establishment of America’s long-term military presence in the Middle East. On-going American sanctions on Iraq that reportedly led directly to the deaths of as many as 500,000 children, the on-going failure to achieve a durable peace in the Israel/Palestine struggle, and the growth of Islamic currents that focused their anger on Western cultural, economic, and political imperialisms all intensified the growing spirit of conflict.

When Clinton turned the presidency over to George W. Bush in January 2001, the global issue that the out-going administration emphasized to the newcomers as requiring the most attention was this conflict arising from these relatively powerless peoples’ resistance to the projection of American power. The term that became central for the Americans to describe this resistance was “terrorism.”

The widespread use of this term goes back to the early days of the Reagan administration. The opposition to “terrorism” became a central part of American foreign policy from that time on. Ironically, the opposition to “terrorism” justified many acts of terror-enhancing violence by the United States. This term tends not to have a stable meaning in relation to acts that are terrorism no matter who uses them; the term generally seems to have a more ideological use, of those who are on only one side of the Pax-Americana/resistance-to-Pax-Americana conflict.

A stable meaning for terrorism could look something like this: “A US Army manual defined terrorism as ‘the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature…through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear.’… The British government’s definition is similar: ‘Terrorism is the use, or threat, of action which is violent, damaging or disrupting, and is intended to influence the government or intimidate the public and is for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, or ideological cause.’”[19]

Those committed to a Pax Americana have a problem with a stable use of the term “terrorism” when it is used of tactics or actions themselves and not of the political location of those doing the acts. With such usage, one is unable to deny that American behavior (and that of America’s allies) has not also often been “terrorism.” The area bombings of Germany by the British and of Japan by the Americans clearly had as their main purpose “using violent action to intimidate the public of those countries for the purpose of advancing a political cause.” Likewise, the massive bombings the U.S. perpetrated in the war on Vietnam and the actions the U.S. supported in Nicaragua during the Contra war (remember above the mention of America’s guilty conviction by the World Court for terrorist acts), fit the stable definition.

To mark this problematic use of “terrorism” really for ideological purposes, it what follows I will keep using quote marks when I am referring to the use of “terrorism” or “terrorist” in ideological ways by supporters of the Pax Americana.

So, when Bush and his advisers came into power in 2001, they heard from their predecessors that “terrorism” should be their main concern and that storm clouds were gathering. However, Bush and his people had other priorities. So they did not pay much attention as warnings about some impending “terrorist” act within the U.S. grew sharper.

Tim Weiner, in his history of the CIA, writes about how American intelligence agents were unable to focus the warnings and unable to get the president to pay attention: “Bush and [CIA director George] Tenet met at the White House almost every morning at eight. But nothing Tenet said about [Osama] bin Laden fully captured the president’s attention….Tenet told the president, [Vice-President Richard] Cheney, and national security adviser Condoleeza Rice about the portents of al Qaeda’s plot to strike America. But Bush was interested in other things—missile defense, Mexico, the Middle East. He was struck by no sense of emergency….Tenet could not convey a coherent signal to the president….Warnings were pouring in from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Jordan and Israel, all over Europe. The CIA’s frayed circuits were dangerously overloaded. Tips kept coming in….‘When these attacks occur, as they likely will,” [White House counterterrorism czar Richard] Clarke e-mailed Rice on May 29, ‘we will wonder what more we could have done to stop them.’”[20]

On the morning of September 11, in a brilliant tactical operation, a handful of men commandeered four commercial airliners in the eastern United States. One airplane flew directly into the Pentagon, two into the World Trade Center, and the fourth seemed to be heading toward another Washington, DC, target, most likely the White House, before a passenger counter attack crashed the plane in the southwestern Pennsylvania countryside.

By the time the second plane hit the World Trade Center, the world watched in horror on television. Despite the concerns raised by many intelligence officers, the U.S. was unprepared for these attacks. One fascinating failure came from the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), a program begun in 1958 to protect the U.S. from airborne attacks. 9/11 was NORAD’s first real life test. “Despite the billions of dollars spent on ‘ready alert,’ it failed miserably, a shocking lesson in the foolishness of both America’s generation-old illusion of air defense and its ludicrous hopes for a future National Missile Defense. NORAD failed on September 11 because, never imagining that enemy aircraft could attack from within, it responded to threats as defined by the Cold War, which had ended a full decade earlier.”[21]

As it turned out, after the world was alerted to the events that were unfolding following the first crash into the World Trade Center, action was taken that did prevent the fourth plane from finding its target. But it was not the high-tech response of the extraordinarily expensive military program, it was a very low-tech reaction by the passengers on that plane who took things into their own hands and overpowered the hijackers and crashed the plane themselves.

Right after 9/11, the U.S. again faced a war or peace crossroads. Or, perhaps by now, a better image is that the of a large semi-truck driving ever faster down a steep mountain highway and continually ignoring emergency turnoffs that would allow the truck to pull safely off the road to its destruction.

American leaders could have treated this incident as a terrible, murderous crime. They would have led a police-like response and drawn on resources from the global community to seek to apprehend and bring to justice the perpetrators of the attacks. Following 9/11, probably far beyond what was deserved, the United States was viewed with great compassion and sympathy throughout the world. As it seemed likely that the perpetrators were linked with Al Qaeda, even the militantly Islamic government of Afghanistan evinced a willingness to cooperate with a police action.

Such an approach would have had enormous potential to legitimize and strengthen the newly expanded regime of international law. Here was a kind of ideal situation with a strong consensus across the board that what had happened was a terrible crime that required swift and decisive action. And the main player was the world’s most powerful nation. Had the United States used this as an opportunity to give its support to the international justice processes it could have established strong precedents for the use of such processes to help the world respond to wrong-doing in non-militaristic, violence-enhancing ways.

Along with an opportunity to move the world toward stability-enhancing practices of international justice with the strong involvement of a wide range of nations, the United States could also have taken the 9/11 attacks as an opportunity for serious self-examination. Certainly on the level of a critical look at the breakdowns across the board in intelligence gathering and analysis, the failure of NORAD, the general dynamic of having constructed a national security system that proved to be helpless in the face of a genuine challenge to America’s security. What went wrong? How could it be remedied?

On a deeper level, the 9/11 attacks could have provided an opportunity for the U.S. to ask, why do we have these enemies? What elements of our foreign policies of the past generation have facilitated the kinds of alienation that clearly to make us more insecure? How could we have so foolishly squandered the opportunities that the end of the Cold War gave us to move toward world peace?

As it turned out, the Bush administration had no interest in taking either the opportunity to enhance the capabilities of the emerging international justice system or to undergo a serious process of self-analysis in terms of the problems that had led to these attacks. To the contrary, as with various past “crossroads” since World War II, American leaders approached 9/11 as a marvelous opportunity to expand even further the militarization of American society and to move even further into the spiral of responding to threats with violence. Rather than trying to find ways to slow the mad rush down the mountain highway, Bush and his advisers only pressed harder on the accelerator.

We should note one point before we proceed to look more closely at the specifics of the American response to 9/11. One main lesson of the story we have considered so far is that this mad rush down the mountain began long, long before George Bush II’s disastrous presidency. The present book makes the case that the rush to the abyss took probably its most important turn with the American full-out involvement in World War II. The moves to speed the descent into the abyss came under Democratic presidents at least as much as under Republican presidents.

With Bush II and the refusal to take steps to slow the rush down the mountain, we hear echoes of the decision to make our early monopoly on nuclear weapons an opportunity to seek greater dominance rather than work towards international cooperation. We hear echoes of the decision to reject the Geneva agreements concerning Vietnam but instead seek to defeat the Viet Minh rather than acknowledge their status as the country’s chosen leaders. We hear echoes of the decision to take the end of the Cold War as another opportunity to push for domination rather than as a chance finally to dismantle the enormously costly and risking mass destruction project.

America at war again

September 11, 2001, quite likely will stand as one of the main defining dates of the 21st century for the United States. The actual reason for this may be a bit different, though, than many Americans seem to think. It’s not that this was the opening date in a newly clarified “war on terror” or “World War IV” as some call it (“World War III” being the Cold War). And certainly, it will not be seen as a date that marks a turning of the tide and motivated a new expression of unassailable American power.

Rather, 9/11 may well signify for generations to come the last gasp of the national security system created by America’s embrace of the military way of dealing with international affairs during World War II, an embrace that was fully institutionalized by the early 1950s.[22] The Bush administration’s response to 9/11 merely carried out the script prepared by “one presidential administration after another since 1943.”[23]

To note how thoroughly the militarization of American national security has been accepted by the American people remember the popular support for Bush’s decision to commence intensively violent acts of revenge within weeks of 9/11. Support for beginning massive bombing of Afghanistan spread across the political spectrum in the U.S. as Bush’s approval ratings reached toward the stratosphere.

No matter that in attacking Afghanistan we mostly brought death and destruction to people who had nothing to do with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. No matter that the U.S. didn’t actually have a carefully prepared plan to gain vengeance on those who had planned the attacks. In fact, as I write these words nearly exactly nine years after 9/11, the man alleged to be the main mastermind of the attacks, Osama bin Laden, remains at large.

No matter that in launching directly into a war response, we totally disregarded the emerging structures the world community was seeking to establish to deal with situations like this. The American refusal to consider relying on international law to bring the perpetrators of 9/11 to account reflected a “habit, begun in the Reagan years, of dismissing international courts, ignoring treaties, and refusing to meet obligations to the United Nations and other transnational bodies. But with the new spirit of ‘with us or against us—no discussion,’ not even NATO was exempt from Washington’s contempt. This denigration of international organizations was accompanied by a new cultivation of ‘coalitions of the willing,’ a pseudo-internationalism that guaranteed U.S. dominance and put other nations in the position of accepting or rejecting nonnegotiable premises of action.”[24]

As it turned out, Bush’s attempt to remove American actions from accountability to international law may have, in some ways at least, been prescient. The United States since 9/11 has followed a course of response that has surely many times violated international law—most egregiously with the initiating of a war of aggression against Iraq without the approval of the United Nations Security Council.

The initial military action against Afghanistan did before long drive the militant Islamic government of the Taliban out of power. The Taliban, with direct links to forces within Afghanistan who had received major CIA funding and training in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s in the conflict with attempted Soviet occupation, had by the early 21st century moved from the friend to the enemy camp due to their friendliness to Al Qaeda. As it turned out, though, the Taliban was not so much defeated as pushed into a strategic retreat. After a few years, the Bush administration turned its focus toward Iraq, and the Taliban returned in force.

However, the American forces met with significant resistance from their start of their entry into Afghanistan. They were unable to make much headway in getting at Al Qaeda. The conflict continued without resolution throughout the remainder of Bush’s time in office.

Ever since the early 1990s when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and his relationship with the U.S. changed from semi-client state to archenemy, important members of the American policy-making elite had hoped for an opportunity to remove Saddam from power. The devastating sanctions regime during the Clinton years had as a big part of its justification the intent to undermine Saddam’s standing within Iraq—though the actual impact seems to have been more to strengthen his position.

Iraq, of course, is the home of some of the world’s richest oil deposits. Since the Carter administration, the U.S. had named access to Middle East oil as a central element of its set of national security interests. Many of Bush’s main advisors, as well as Bush himself, had close ties to the oil industry. Bush had come into power with strong interest in resolving the Iraq situation.

To the surprise of many who focused their concerns on Al Qaeda and responding to the crisis of 9/11, the Bush administration began talking up the need to looked to Iraq as part of the problem—naming Iraq along with Iran and North Korea as the triumvirate that made up “the axis of evil.” The administration gave several highly contestable reasons for turning the focus toward Iraq as a major concern in the “war on terror.” Some advocates for military action against Iraq implied, and on occasion even stated directly, that there was a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda—counting on their listeners’ ignorance of the mutual hostility between Saddam and Osama bin Laden that made ludicrous any notion that Saddam could have had anything to do with 9/11.

The main claim that drove the pro-intervention campaign was Saddam’s alleged quest for “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD). Because of Iraq’s high levels of secretiveness, this claim was difficult to disprove (or to substantiate). However, with the war clouds gathering, Iraq did submit to inspections from the United Nations. The inspections were indicating that in fact, as Saddam claimed, Iraq did not in fact have any WMDs. However, the Bush administration decided not to wait for the conclusion of the inspections, but instead—insisting that its intelligence provided strong evidence for the existence of WMDs somewhere in Iraq—prepared to take military action.

The U.S. took its case to the U.N. Security Council, hoping to get approval in the same way it had for the Gulf War in 1991 and for the attacks on Afghanistan in 2001. This time, however, the U.N. proved to be reluctant to grant such approval before the inspection process could be completed. If the rationale for the attack was to be Iraq’s illegal possession of WMDs, such possession would have to be verified before military action would be taken.

The Americans were in a hurry, though, and with the support of a handful of other countries (most notably Great Britain), in March 2003, launched the invasion. Lacking the approval of the U.N., this invasion clearly violated international law. However, the American’s unmatched power and unwillingness to submit to international law made that violation moot—at least for the time being.

As with the military action against Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq quickly drove the existing government out of power. But also, as with the earlier action, in Iraq simply toppling the government did not resolve the conflict. Even though Bush declared victory in his “mission accomplished” speech on May 1, 2003, just six weeks following the initial invasion, in fact the Iraq War became a quagmire that took many times more lives after this declaration of “victory” than before.

The third main rationale for the invasion, coming more to prominence after the failure even after the invasion to uncover any WMDs and after the debunking of the Iraq—9/11 link, was that the U.S. went into Iraq to overthrow this terrible tyrant and help the Iraqis transform their society into a Western-style democracy.

In the event, the American invaders proved themselves unprepared to transform Iraq into a genuine democracy. Their presence, rather than being celebrated as was promised by pro-invasion advocates, became the occasion for extraordinary levels of resistance, widespread violence, and in time a whole new level of devastation for a society already devastated by the earlier American war and the on-going economic sanctions. A country that had had the highest levels of education, the best medical system, the broadest distribution of wealth in the entire Middle East was pauperized by the American invasion and occupation.

Actual American actions (rather than the rationales given by policymakers) point toward four likely objectives for the American invasion: to establish permanent military bases in the region, partly to make up for the insecurity of bases in Saudi Arabia; to weaken a significant anti-Israeli center of power in the region; to provide large amounts of money to major military contractors; and, probably most important, to insure access to Iraqi oil for major corporate allies of the Bush administration.

Huge, seemingly permanent military bases have been and are being constructed in Iraq. However, the on-going instability of the political situation in Iraq does make the future of these bases somewhat less than certain. Also, given the deepening economic crises in the United States itself, it is questionable whether the bases will be economically sustainable over the long term.

Certainly the devastation visited upon Iraq and the execution of Saddam have lessened the regional threat to Israel from that quarter. It remains to be seen, though, what kind of government will eventually come to power in Iraq. It could be that down the line, the Israelis will remember Saddam as a much more predictable and manageable “enemy” (especially given Saddam’s long-time links with American support) than his ultimate successors.

The corporate profits that emerged from the invasion and occupation have been immense. This one objective seems to have been fulfilled without qualification.

The ultimate control of Iraq’s oil resources remains up in the air. It does not appear that American companies will necessarily be major players. The war itself led to severe damage to the infrastructure of Iraq’s oil industry and the output of Iraqi oil dropped severely. It seems likely that this objective will end up being mostly unachieved. In fact, a terrible irony in line with many more terrible ironies in the longer story we are reflecting on in this book, it seems that the overall impact of America’s war on Iraq will be quite harmful to the economic interests that seem to have driven the push for this war.

As the economically-driven overthrow of Iran’s democratic government in 1953 in the long run made things much worse for American economic interests after the Shah was deposed, we may well see history repeat itself with Iraq. With the recognition by Bush during his second term that victory in any sense in Iraq had become impossible, it then became a matter of time before a government decidedly hostile to the United States would come to power in Iraq. Such a government may be more likely to turn to China, India, and Europe for markets for its oil than to the United States.

By the middle of Bush’s second term, growing disillusionment with his presidency and his Republican Party led to major gains in Congress for Democratic candidates. Then in the 2008 presidential campaign, the presumptive heavy favorite for the Democratic Party’s nomination, Hillary Clinton, lost to a relative political newcomer, Barak Obama. One of Obama’s main points of difference with Clinton, that he exploited to the fullest, was that while Clinton had voted in favor of the U.S. war on Iraq, Obama (before he was elected to the U.S. Senate) had spoken out against it. Quite likely, this issue was decisive in Obama’s victory over Clinton—a statement from the electorate that reinforced the 2006 election’s statement against these wars: They were a terrible mistake; let’s get out.

Though Obama’s race against Republican John McCain (a strong supporter of Bush’s military actions) ended up being fairly close, the young Democratic, with a galvanized base of activists who took with utmost seriousness Obama’s promise of “change we can believe in,” prevailed. And, as in 2006, congressional races went heavily for the Democrats—partly, at least, as a statement against Bush’s wars.

So, year 2008 brought the United States to another crossroads. This time, the public seemed to be making a strong statement about turning from the mad rush down the mountain of wars and preparation for wars. Our question once again will be: What happened when our leaders president came to this crossroads (or at least, what happened as they approached another possible emergency turn-off on the steep downhill grade of the mountain highway)?

Business as usual

Many people throughout the world who had been increasingly alarmed with the global policies of the Bush administration responded with hope to the election of Barak Obama as president of the United States in 2008. A sense of how widespread and intense this hopefulness may be seen in the surprise selection of Obama as the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, very early in his presidency. The Nobel award clearly had more to do with the hopes for Obama than with any concrete achievements in his short political career.

Obama did fan the embers of peaceable people’s hope for a new direction in American militarism in a couple of ways. Partly, he simply existed as an alternative to the gung-ho Republican war party. After the Bush years, simply to have someone come along who positioned himself over against many of Bush’s policies seemed hopeful. Obama also set himself up as an alternative to a simple return to the Clinton era in differentiating himself from President Clinton’s spouse in the campaign for the presidency.

As well, Obama emphasized that he had early on opposed the invasion of Iraq. He argued that this position had been vindicated by the failure of that invasion to uncover weapons of mass destruction, to establish a viable Iraqi democratic government, or to make a positive impact on the dynamics of “terrorism.”

So, much of the oppositional energy that Bush’s wars had created found a focus in the Obama campaign. With Obama’s victory, hopes indeed were high, as the Nobel Peace prize indicated.

However, attentive people expressed caution even during the campaign that the change might not in reality be significant. Obama stated consistently that he had indeed supported the military action against Afghanistan right after 9/11. One of his major criticisms of Bush’s Iraq War was that it had diverted attention from the effort in Afghanistan actually to catch and punish Al Qaeda’s leaders. So, Obama actually proposed expanding the presence of the American military in Afghanistan. As well, Obama made no promises to decrease military spending—already by the end of Bush’s terms greater than the combined military spending of the rest of the world. He proposed expanding America’s on-the-ground military forces, the Army and Marines.

That Obama managed to present himself as a peace candidate speaks more to the antipathy many felt toward Bush’s policies (almost anybody could seem like a peace candidate compared to Republican candidate John McCain, who if anything came across as more militaristic than Bush) than to anything genuinely peaceable in Obama’s positions.

Retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich offers this summary: “As is usually the case in U.S. elections, the contestants portrayed their differences as fundamental, notably so with regard to national security. Yet what actually ensued was a contest between different species of hawks. In one camp were those like… McCain who insisted that the Iraq War, having always been necessary and justified, was now—thanks to the surge—successful as well. In the other camp were those like…Obama who derided the Iraq War as disastrous, but pointed to Afghanistan as a war that needed to be won. No prominent figure in either party came within ten feet of questioning the logic of configuring U.S. forces for global power projection or the wisdom of maintaining a global military presence…. Inevitably in such a contest, the hawks won.”[25]

From the time Obama won the election, he consistently disabused those who might have hoped he would signal a turning away from the careening down the steep mountain road of militarism. He placed in positions of power people known to be militarists: retired Marine James Jones as National Security Council head, Bush’s Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (also a former CIA director) to continue in that role, and Hilary Clinton (who Obama had claimed in the campaign had been too pro-war) as Secretary of State.

In the face of an extraordinary financial crisis the United States that greatly accelerated in a meltdown in the Fall of 2008 that placed the United States in a severe recession, perhaps the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s, Obama nonetheless refused to consider serious reductions in military spending. In fact, remarkably given the militaristic excesses of the Bush years, Obama actually oversaw an increase in military spending.

At the end of his first year in office, Obama oversaw a three-month review of the war in Afghanistan. Perhaps he faced at that time his one opportunity to distance his administration from his predecessor. Instead, the U.S. committed itself to accelerate an already failing military campaign.

This investing even more extensively in such a certain policy failure emphasizes just how powerful the hold narrow militarism has on the United States government. Here is how Garry Wills concludes his critical account of the American national security state:

“George W. Bush left the White House unpopular and disgraced. His successor promised change, and it was clear where change was needed. Illegal acts should cease—torture and indefinite detention, denial of habeas corpus and legal representation, unilateral canceling of treaties, defiance of Congress and the Constitution, nullification of law by signing statement. Powers given the President under the unitary executive theory should not be exercised. Judges should not be confirmed who are willing to give the President any power he asks for. But the momentum of accumulating powers in the executive is not easily reversed, checked, or even slowed. It was not created by the Bush administration. The whole history of America since World War II caused an inertial rolling of power toward the executive branch. The monopoly on the use of nuclear weaponry, the cult of the Commander in Chief, the worldwide web of military bases to maintain nuclear alert and supremacy, the secret intelligence agencies, the whole National Security State, the classification and clearance systems, the expansion of state secrets, the withholding of evidence and information, the permanent emergency that has melded World War II with the Cold War and the Cold War with the war on terror—all these make a vast and intricate structure that may not yield to efforts at dismantling it. Sixty-eight straight years of war emergency powers (1941–2009) have made the abnormal normal and the constitutional diminishment the settled order.

“The truth of this was borne out in the early days of Barack Obama’s presidency. At his confirmation hearing to be head of the CIA, Leon Panetta said that ‘extraordinary rendition’ was a tool he meant to retain. Obama’s nominee for Solicitor General, Elena Kagan, told Congress she agreed with John Yoo’s claim that a terrorist captured anywhere should be subject to ‘battlefield law.’ On the first opportunity to abort trial proceedings by invoking ‘state secrets’… Obama’s Attorney General, Eric Holder, did so. Obama refused to release photographs of ‘enhanced interrogation.’ The CIA had earlier (illegally) destroyed taped depictions of such interrogations—and Obama refused to release documents describing the tapes. The President said that past official crimes would not be investigated—certainly not for prosecution, and not even in terms of an impartial ‘truth commission’ just trying to establish a record. He said, on the contrary, that detainees might be tried in Bush’s unconstitutional ‘military tribunals.’ When the British government, trying a terrorist suspect, decided to use some American documents shared with the British government, Obama’s Attorney General pressured them not to do it. Most important, perhaps, was the new President’s desire to end the nation building in Iraq with a long-term nation-building effort in Afghanistan, a drug-culture government not susceptible to our remolding.”[26]

Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech in December, 2009, brings us near to the end of our story of the moral legacy of World War II. It is fitting that Obama himself drew directly on that legacy. On the one hand, at several points in his speech Obama echoes ideals stated by Roosevelt and Churchill back in 1941 that we have been attentive to throughout this book. In doing so, he reinforces the on-going role of those ideals both in reminding us of our aspirations and in giving us criteria for evaluating the actual practices of our governments.

It is relation to this second role that Obama’s speech becomes most problematic. He implies throughout the speech that indeed these ideals have determined America’s actual practices over the past seventy years—an implication the above pages refute. And he uses these ideals as a basis for affirming the need to continue America’s war on Afghanistan, even being brazen enough to assert that this “is a conflict that America did not seek; one in which we are joined by 43 other countries—including Norway—in an effort to defend ourselves and all nations from further attacks.”

Of course, everyone knows that this is indeed a war that the U.S. did seek in September 2001 as an act of revenge for 9/11. It is a war that has brought death to thousands of Afghanis, people who had nothing to do with that 9/11 attacks and have no interest in having anything to do with any “further attacks.” And everyone also knows that from the beginning this has been America’s war and America’s war alone, even with the very thin veneer of support from various allies who have had and continue to have virtually no say in the events of the war.

Obama does pay lip service to the witness of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., but mainly in order to assert the limits of that witness. He even plays the Hitler card: “As a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world.  A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies….The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.”

Actually, contrary to Obama’s assertion, if there is a lesson in the story we have been tracing, it is that the United States has underwritten global insecurity. The presidents of the United States, including apparently Barak Obama, have shown a striking inability to understand and respond creatively to “the world as it is.” Obama directly touches on one of the main reasons for this inability to understand when he speaks of “evil…in the world” with the clear sense that this “evil” is out there residing with the enemies of the United States alone.

Until leaders in the United States can recognize the evils of American policies and practices—from the insistence on using its early monopoly on nuclear weapons as a basis for seeking world domination, not international cooperation; from the direct action to overthrow democratic governments such as that in Iran (contradicting Obama’s pious assertion that “America has never fought a war against a democracy”); from the refusal to abide by the agreements that ended the French conflict with Vietnam and instead subjecting that nation to twenty years of the most devastating brutality imaginable; from subsidizing and direct training of untold agents of torture and death in Latin America; from the refusal to accept the Soviet Union’s gift as an opportunity to achieve genuine disarmament; from the rejection of the emerging international justice structures in order to seek a military conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq—we have no hope that the United States will indeed be a force to help the world embody the ideals of the Atlantic Charter. We are led to the inescapable conclusion that the main moral legacy of World War II for the United States has been a disastrous one, a legacy of the fruitless and destructive quest for militarized global domination.

So, the story of the moral legacy of World War II is the story of the American nation-state’s inability and unwillingness truly to seek to make real the ideals of the Atlantic Charter—most notably the ideals of self-determination and disarmament, the ideals of genuine peace.

We must not end the story with this on-going failure. The American nation-state, the entity that set the American people on the path of all-out war under the guise of seeking long-term genuine peace, did not do so in the end. The American state left the world with a legacy of moral failure—and by doing placed the moral legitimacy of that path of war in severe doubt. However, the state’s failure does not mean that the ideals of the Atlantic Charter have not been effectively sought and embodied in the light of World War II.

Below, in part three of this book, “Alternatives,” I will tell the stories of many who did seek to embody the ideals of self-determination and disarmament—and found at least some success. These stories, of course, have roots that go back much further than the 1940s. However, in important ways the War served as a catalyst for many of them. The lesson to be learned from these stories, I will suggest, is that in spite of war, genuine peace is possible to embody. This part of the story of the moral legacy of World War II will reinforce the parts we have already considered. That World War II was a moral disaster for America is borne out in the story we have considered. That moral good also emerged out of these same events actually emphasizes all the more the problematic reality of the War. The good as a reaction to the immorality underscores the true nature of the immorality, and shows us as well that immorality need not have the final say.


[1] James Carroll, House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 397-417.

[2] Carroll, House, 404.

[3] Carroll, House, 404.

[4] Carroll, House, 405.

[5] Carroll, House, 405.

[6] Carroll, House, 407.

[7] Carroll, House, 409.

[8] Carroll, House, 411.

[9] Carroll, House, 411-12.

[10] Quotes from Carroll, House, 414-15.

[11] See the Bulletin’s website for a history of when the clock’s hands have moved: http://www.thebulletin.org/content/doomsday-clock/timeline.

[12] Carroll, House, 423-24.

[13] Carroll, House, 429-30. Quote from Bruce Cumings, “The Wicked Witch of the West is Dead. Long Live the Wicked Witch of the East,” in Michael J. Hogan, ed., The End of the Cold War: Its Meaning and Implications (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 91.

[14] Carroll, House, 434.

[15] Carroll, House, 434. Quote from Cumings, “Witch,” 90.

[16] Carroll, House. 435.

[17] Carroll, House, 437.

[18] Carroll, House, 454-55.

[19] Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2003), 188.

[20] Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (New York: Anchor Books, 2008), 552-53.

[21] Carroll, House, 486.

[22] See Garry Wills’ sketch of the pieces of America’s national security system being put into place in the years between 1945 and 1952: Garry Wills, Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State (New York: The Penguin Press, 2010), “Part II: The National Security State,” 57-102.

[23] Carroll, House, 496.

[24] Carroll, House, 497.

[25] Andrew J. Bacevich, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010), 210.

[26] Garry Wills, Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State (New York: The Penguin Press, 2010), 237-38.

Contents for the entire Long Shadow book

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