One Nation, Under Arms

Article by Todd Purdum.


The private papers of the late George F. Kennan, Cold War architect and diplomat extraordinaire, reveal his anguish over the way his famous 1947 warning about Soviet expansionism helped transform the America he loved into one he no longer recognized: a national-security state. A half-century after a similarly historic warning—President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s speech about the dangers of a powerful “military-industrial complex”—Todd S. Purdum shows how completely Kennan’s and Eisenhower’s worst fears have been realized, warping almost every aspect of society, deflecting attention from urgent problems, and splitting the country into two classes.

They rest in 330 acid-free archival boxes in climate-controlled storage at Princeton University. To pore over the collected papers of George F. Kennan in the cool fluorescent light is to witness the transformation of the United States from the comparatively simple sleeping giant it was before World War II into the complex national-security state it has become. Kennan, who died in 2005 at the age of 101, devoted the first part of his career to diplomacy at the highest levels, in Moscow and Washington, and then spent the remaining half-century as a scholar, historian, and unsparing critic of the American imperium he had helped to create.

If the Cold War has a set of founding documents akin to the Federalist Papers, these tattered notebooks and yellowing bits of onionskin are among them, including the urtext—in Box 251, Folder 7. It is an aging reprint of an article from the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs, the staid journal of the Council on Foreign Relations, tersely titled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” by an author identified only as “X.” As the world soon learned, X was actually Kennan, who had just become the first policy-planning director of the State Department, and his article caused a sensation. Colleges and universities asked for copies to use in their courses; newspapers around the world sought permission to publish excerpts, as did The Reader’s Digest, with its mass popular circulation.

In the aftermath of World War II, and of Stalinist Russia’s repudiation of postwar agreements with Washington, Kennan’s fateful words rang out like a shot: “It is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” He added, “Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.”

For a nation struggling to know what to make of the newly dawned nuclear age, Kennan’s prescription seemed a firm and reassuring guide. It is not too much to say that his analysis, greatly amplified and expanded beyond his wildest dreams, led to the wars in Korea and Vietnam; to various lesser conflicts and adventures then and since; and even to the country’s ongoing entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan. For all this—in speech after speech and interview after interview—Kennan expressed profound regret. He had intended to argue forpolitical containment of Soviet ambitions, he insisted, until Russian Communism could collapse of its own internal contradictions (as, indeed, it eventually did). Instead, Kennan’s words helped prompt the abandonment of the settled understanding of American foreign policy that had prevailed since John Quincy Adams’s day—that the country “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy”—in favor of a view of America as the world’s policeman. The transformation, accomplished bit by bit over many decades, was ultimately so complete as to create a country that Kennan himself, near the end of his long and lucid life, confessed he no longer recognized.

In December 1992, in a private diary entry on the American mission to Somalia, Kennan wrote, “The dispatch of American armed forces to a seat of operations in a place far from our own shores, and this for what is actually a major police action in another country and in a situation where no defensible American interest is involved—this, obviously, is something that the Founding Fathers of this country never envisaged or would ever have approved. If this is in the American tradition, then it is a very recent tradition.”

Just over 50 years ago, in his farewell address from the Oval Office, Dwight D. Eisenhower warned the nation of the dangers inherent in a powerful “military-industrial complex,” and just three days later—as if in proof of Eisenhower’s words—John Fitzgerald Kennedy famously vowed to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Yes, the United States faced extraordinary challenges in the postwar era—and was forced to shoulder extraordinary responsibilities. But some steps, once taken, prove impossible to walk back. By 1961 the problem that Eisenhower had identified was well advanced. Already, the United States was spending more on military security than the net income of all American corporations combined.

In the years since, the trend has warped virtually every aspect of national life, with consequences that are quite radical in their cumulative effect on the economy, on the vast machinery of official secrecy, on the country’s sense of itself, and on the very nature of national government in Washington. And yet the degree to which America has changed is noticed by almost no one—not in any visceral way. The transformation has taken hold too gradually and over too long a period. Almost no one alive today has a mature, firsthand memory of a country that used to be very different—that was not a superpower; that did not shroud the workings of its government in secrecy; that did not use ends-justify-the-means logic to erode rights and liberties; that did not undertake protracted wars on the president’s say-so; that had not forgotten how to invest in urgent needs at home; that did not trumpet its greatness even as its shortcomings became more obvious. An American today who is 25 or 50 or even 75—such a person has lived entirely in the America we have become.

A National Addiction

The mere act of reading the Kennan papers in the Seelye G. Mudd Manuscript Library requires a patience befitting an earlier age. Researchers may ask for up to six boxes at a time, listing requests on long, multi-part call slips in pencil. A few minutes later, a staff member arrives with a rolling cart and parks it beside a sturdy oak table, asking that you consult only one box at a time.

Amid the profusion of paper, a prominent name in the news catches my eye: Warren Buffett. In 1984, Buffett, a trustee of Grinnell College, in Iowa, had prevailed upon Kennan to deliver a pair of lectures there. They are now preserved in Box 284. In one of them, Kennan reflected on a topic that had become something of an obsession for him by his 80th year: the “extreme militarization not only of our thought but of our lives”—a phenomenon that had had a profoundly distorting effect on the entire economy. Military spending had become a national addiction. “We could not now break ourselves of this habit,” Kennan wrote, “without the most serious of withdrawal symptoms. Millions of people, in addition to those other millions that are in uniform, have become accustomed to deriving their livelihood from the military-industrial complex. Thousands of firms have become dependent on it, not to mention labor unions and communities.”

In historic terms, this addiction to military spending—one that dominates the existence of places as diverse as Huntsville and Cedar Rapids, Norfolk and San Diego, El Paso and Colorado Springs—would have been seen as un-American. For generations, the nation’s pattern after each armed conflict was demobilization. In 1918, as World War I ended, France was spending $235 per capita on its military, Great Britain $188, and the U.S. just $68. As late as 1940, on the eve of its entry into World War II, the United States spent just 1.7 percent of gross domestic product on defense. The level today is three times that proportion, on a vastly greater base. American military spending accounts for 43 percent of all defense spending worldwide, 6 times the share of China, 12 times that of Russia. The U.S. Navy is larger than the next 13 navies combined. Overall, defense spending increased about 70 percent under George W. Bush, and it now stands at more than half a trillion dollars annually, roughly $100 billion a year (in inflation-adjusted dollars) above the levels at the height of the Cold War. That does not include what is spent by related agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, or by the myriad intelligence services. Despite the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and recent talk in Washington about reining in military spending, the trend shows every evidence of continuing. Last spring, the Pentagon identified some $178 billion in potential savings and efficiencies through fiscal year 2016, but then proposed to keep $100 billion of it and redirect it to other programs.

Perpetual spending increases on defense have not always been taken for granted. Eisenhower made significant cuts in spending after the end of the Korean War. So did Richard Nixon when American forces began withdrawing from Vietnam. But the amorphous bogeyman of global terrorism has made the notion of significant adjustments in defense spending off limits. Officials who should know better—including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, an old deficit hawk in his days as a congressman from California—warn of the dire consequences of potential cuts.

Even if the most severe scenario now under discussion occurred—even if the congressional supercommittee on the debt and deficit failed to act and automatic “doomsday” cuts of more than $500 billion over 10 years were imposed on the Pentagon—that would still amount to a decrease of only about 15 percent, leaving roughly the equivalent of what we were spending in 2007. It would hardly represent a radical rethinking of national priorities.

And, of course, it is the twisting of national priorities that is the most pernicious ripple effect of this military spending. It has become all but impossible to close any military base (the chore has repeatedly been farmed out to special commissions, insulated from political pressure), and it is always a heavy lift to cancel any weapon system, because some community (or member of Congress) depends on it, economically or politically. It takes only a glance at National Journalor Politico, filled with full-page color advertisements from Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, from Northrup-Grumman and L3 and KBR, to get some indication of where our priorities lie. Great corporate engines once worked to build the U.S. civilian economy and the infrastructure that underlay it; now they are at the service of military power and its projection abroad.

The Secrecy Industry

One of the glories of the Kennan papers is the personal correspondence. Over the decades, Kennan exchanged letters—often many dozens of them—with a long list of luminaries, from the banker David Rockefeller to the dancer Jacques d’Amboise, from Adlai Stevenson to Colin Powell. The most meaningful exchanges—typically those with friends or colleagues over many years—are organized alphabetically by the recipient’s name. John Lewis Gaddis subtitled his superb recent biography of Kennan “An American Life,” and by itself the variety of Kennan’s correspondence validates that choice. To savor the profusion of letterheads and typefaces, the variations in penmanship and paper weights, is to feel oneself an eavesdropper on long-ago conversations come suddenly to life.

In 1997, Kennan answered a query from Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was then at work on a book about the relentless growth and collateral consequences of official secrecy in American life. Kennan did not come to the subject as a bystander; he had been among those who helped create the entity that would become the C.I.A. But he shared Moynihan’s concerns about the insatiable American appetite for secrecy—and spying—with its attendant abrasions of civil liberties.

In his letter to Moynihan, Kennan acknowledged a legitimate, if comparatively rare, need to keep some things secret. But he went on to observe, “We easily become ourselves the sufferers from these methods of deception. For they inculcate in their authors, as well as their intended victims, unlimited cynicism.” In his famous “Long Telegram” from Moscow, in February 1946, in which he set official Washington afire with the assessment that the Soviet Union was “committed fanatically to the belief that with the U.S. there can be no permanent modus vivendi,” Kennan had also issued another powerful warning, though it got little attention. “We must have courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society,” he wrote. “After all, the greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet Communism is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”

Whether the enemy at hand be Stalinist Russia or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, those cautionary words are equally applicable. But such moral clarity has not been much in evidence. In his book Bomb Power, Garry Wills argues that from the moment Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, giving the president of the United States sole authority over the use of nuclear weapons, the jig, in some crucial sense, was up. Every subsequent expansion of the vast web of secrecy that is now woven through the whole of our government—every line of the intelligence community’s “black budget,” every presidential finding that author- izes the targeted assassination of a terrorist enemy, every assertion of a “unitary executive” possessed of almost unlimited powers in “time of war,” however that concept may be defined—was created by this fateful act.

Even the colossal and documented executive deceptions of Vietnam and Watergate were not enough to check the ever accelerating cycle of secrecy and unscrutinized authority that are the hallmarks of the modern national-security state. The balance of power is so inverted that, in 1973, Congress sought to reclaim for itself just some of the authority that the Constitution had granted exclusively to the legislative branch: namely, the power to make war. And even that measure—the War Powers Act—has been honored largely in the breach in the years since its passage.

Today, roughly 4.2 million Americans hold security clearances, with some authority to decide what information should be withheld from the public. In 2006, historians using the National Archives noticed that documents relating to intelligence and national security that had been publicly available just a few years earlier had been quietly removed from the files; the archives conducted an audit and found that 24 percent of the documents withdrawn by various agencies should never have been removed, and that another 12 percent had been redefined as classified on questionable grounds.

The secret government agencies and scores of private contractors that do some sort of national-security or intelligence work are now so numerous that the officials theoretically in charge of them cannot keep track of their operations. A private company such as S.A.I.C., based in northern Virginia but with personnel worldwide, has its hands in so many secret operations that it is effectively an arm of the government, but without effective oversight. A lengthy investigation by The Washington Post last year found that some 1,300 government organizations and nearly 2,000 private corporations work on some aspect of counterterrorism, homeland security, or foreign intelligence. In the Washington, D.C., area alone, 33 new building complexes related to top-secret intelligence work have been completed since September 11, 2001, or are under construction. In the name of national security, bedrock protections of the American legal system have been eroded, whether through the Bush administration’s refusal to grant habeas corpus rights to suspected terrorist detainees (even if they were American citizens) or through the secret wiretapping by the National Security Agency of Americans and others inside this country without court-ordered warrants. Intrusive new bureaucracies—from the Transportation Security Administration to the Department of Homeland Security itself—have proliferated and expanded. 
Measures undertaken in the fevered climate that followed the 9/11 attacks are now permanent features of American life. No president—Republican or Democrat—willingly gives back new powers once they have been acquired. National security is a ratchet—it turns in one direction only.

Two Societies

Atheme that runs through page after page of Kennan’s writings—from his astonishment at the leisure culture that thrived in Southern California during his first visits there, in the post–World War II period, to his mordant commentaries on the Reagan era—is a profound love of country tempered by deep disappointment at the ways in which the modern United States has so often been willing to settle for the wasteful, the trivial, the second-rate. In Box 286, one finds a speech to the National Defense University, in 1985, in which Kennan sounded just these themes as he reflected on the broader meaning of containment.

“There is much in our own life, here in this country,” Kennan said, “that needs early containment. It could in fact be said that the first thing we Americans need to learn to contain is, in some ways, ourselves: our own environmental destructiveness; our tendency to live beyond our means and to borrow ourselves into disaster; our apparent inability to reduce a devastating budgetary deficit.”

In fact, America’s six decades of all but unlimited attention to national security, narrowly defined, has resulted in correspondingly less attention to almost every other social, political, and economic challenge we face, from public education to the environment, from health care to energy—as if these were not themselves matters of national security. It is no accident that the singular domestic achievement of the Eisenhower administration—the interstate highway system—was undertaken in the name of national defense, to create swift routes of evacuation in the event of a wartime emergency, or that J.F.K.’s inspirational reach for the moon was conceived of as a way to beat the Soviets to the punch. It is hard to name a purely domestic effort on behalf of the American people as a whole that works better than it did 50 years ago, the near-bankrupt Postal Service being but the latest example.

Yet each diminution in national greatness—on the scale by which genuine greatness is properly measured—has resulted in a perverse increase in national chauvinism and bellicosity, as if chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” were proof of American exceptionalism rather than sounds of wishful thinking. An attitude has lodged in the soul. The huge video-game industry—in dollar terms, nearly equal to the movie business—is heavily dominated by military or quasi-military plotlines of increasing violence and xenophobia. Police departments everywhere—not just in big cities—have adopted military-style uniforms and upgraded their body armor and automatic weaponry. A swat team in Peoria today is a more fearsome sight than any unit the U.S. sent into battle in Korea or Vietnam. Our airports and train stations and highway rest areas, with some notable exceptions, are decrepit; the only 21st-century element is the visible presence of armed soldiers in cammies, German shepherds at their side.

Insidiously, the creation of an all-volunteer military—replacing universal conscription—has made the use of military power easier rather than harder, while at the same time adding a troubling new element into the country’s social makeup. The Nixon administration’s abolition of the draft was a deliberate effort to remove the great bulk of eligible young people from any threat of military service, thereby diminishing the incentive for their politically active mothers and fathers to object to acts of war. The all-volunteer military is, in many ways, a shining example of successful social organization, and it has been a prominent path to education and advancement for blacks and other minorities. Indeed, in an era of vanishing real jobs, it is often the only path to advancement. But it also represents something that the country didn’t have in the past—a large and permanent warrior caste.

Increasingly there exist two societies in America: a military class, strongly religious, politically conservative, drawn disproportionately from the South and from smaller towns and areas of limited economic opportunity, including the inner cities; and an untouched civilian class consisting of everyone else, who wouldn’t know a regiment from a firmament or an M16 from a 7-Eleven. The dynamic between the two societies will become only more unhealthy. The civilian class can deploy the warriors at will, knowing that most Americans will remain unaffected. In turn, the military class can demand what it wishes, knowing that the civilians have no standing to resist.

A Captive Capital

Perhaps the most remarkable of all Kennan’s literary output are his voluminous diaries—80 years of entries in the Princeton files, ranging from his days as an undergraduate until just a year before his death, in a house not far from the campus. Usually written in his strong, fine hand on both sides of loose-leaf paper or ordinary stationery-store notebooks (one with the label from a Granny Smith apple stuck on the front), or less often typed by him in the same economical fashion, the diaries offer an intimate window into Kennan’s public philosophy, personal crotchets, physical ailments, and increasingly dark views of his country and the world as the years wore on. We had reached, he feared, a point of no return.

An entry from December 9, 1987, recounts a visit to Washington for a State Department lunch and reception at the Russian Embassy with Mikhail Gorbachev, who recognized him in the crowd and had warm words for his diplomatic service. Kennan’s own reflections on the city where he had made his professional reputation were far less warm.

“I have been back in Washington for these past three days,” he wrote. “Not my Washington, of course, but let us say, the Washington that might have appeared to anyone else who had been born in 1904, who had seen something of that city in the days of his maturity, had then died at a normal age but had been permitted, by some extraordinary indulgence of Providence, to be resurrected from the dead and to revisit this, together with other, scenes of his own brief passage across the face of history. I, on this occasion, found the city cowering under a faint, cold December sunshine, but roaring more than ever with surface and airplane traffic; and I viewed it, resurrected as I was from the past, with a slight shudder, and an offer of thanks to Providence that I was absolved from contributing further to its active life.”

Modern Washington would be all but unrecognizable to anyone who lived or worked in it prior to World War II. Before Pearl Harbor, if you were driving down Pennsylvania Avenue in a convertible and it started to rain, you could pull under the North Portico of the White House and put your top up. Now you can’t even drive down Pennsylvania Avenue, because it has been blocked to all vehicular traffic since the Oklahoma City bombing, in 1995. When you go to the neighborhood Safeway in Bethesda, Maryland, you can’t make a cell-phone call, because the store is across the street from the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, and all service is blocked. London, Paris, and Berlin do not wrap their public buildings in such suffocating cordons of security, and the fortress-like physiognomy is merely the most obvious outward manifestation of the profound ways that Washington has changed inside.

For most of its existence, Washington was the place where the great regional economic and political power centers of the country came to have their say, where southern planters, New England textile-makers, western timber and railroad barons, midwestern farmers, and Appalachian coal and steel magnates came to work their will, which mostly involved keeping the government out of their affairs. It was the great political bosses—of the Bronx or Chicago or Cleveland—who helped pick the presidents. Now Washington, with its bottomless pot of military contracts and homeland-security consultancies, is the true seat of national power, its long arms and trillions of dollars in spending reaching out to every congressional district in the country.

The defense sector contributes less money to politicians than many other industries, but it remains perhaps the most powerful force in politics because it is the one sector that no politician of either party wants to be accused of rebuffing. With more than 1,100 lobbyists representing some 400 corporate clients, it is a powerhouse in the influence game. It spent $137 million on federal lobbying efforts in 2009. The lobbying is invariably done by former legislators or top Pentagon brass in a revolving-door system that is deeply entrenched and has resisted all attempts at reform.

The surest sign of the stranglehold that the national-security state has on the capital is the inability of even the most articulate, presumably determined critics of the status quo to change it. Barack Obama campaigned on a platform of retooling the Bush administration’s foreign and military policies, and he has sounded some tonal shifts, notably on the use of torture to interrogate suspected terrorists. But he has failed in his goal to close the terrorist-detention center at Guantánamo Bay, in Cuba; has continued his predecessor’s policy of indefinite detention without charge for some suspected terrorists; has allowed a secret committee of national-security officials to target terrorists for summary execution by drone attack; and has appointed a virtual musical chairs of the same officials who have been conducting military and foreign policy for years, from his new head of the C.I.A., General David Petraeus, to his White House counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan. Although Obama had vowed to impose a ban on onetime lobbyists serving in government, he sought a waiver to allow Raytheon’s former chief lobbyist to become his deputy secretary of defense. To the chagrin of many of his supporters—and to the sneering surprise of critics such as Dick Cheney—Obama’s policy is, in important ways, functionally indistinguishable from the Bush administration’s, stuck in a box outside of which no president has dared to go in half a century.

“Too Pessimistic?”

It is no accident that it was Eisenhower, a five-star general with intimate experience of military and corporate appetites, who most clearly foresaw the dangers and distortions that the military-industrial complex would cause. “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist,” he warned in that long-ago winter. “We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.” There is reason to believe that the battle was already lost by the time Eisenhower sounded his farewell warning. There is no reason to imagine that the trend can be reversed in this new age of fear.

By the end of his life, Kennan was convinced that the situation was hopeless. In February of 2003, on the eve of the Iraq war, in his 99th year, he sent a letter to his nephew and literary executor, making a copy for his old friend and admirer John Lukacs, and instructing him to destroy it. (Lukacs declined to comply.)

“I am finishing this letter on the morning when, according to the press, the United Nations Security Council (weeping over the absence of the French) is supposed to take some action giving sanction to an early attack, almost exclusively by ourselves, on the present regime of Iraq,” Kennan wrote. “There is now not the slightest reason to doubt that this action will be undertaken at the earliest day, probably some three weeks off, when all the military preparations are complete. [This] has already acted like a burning match to dynamite for the American media, particularly television, which immerses itself delightedly in what it already perceives as a new war. I take an extremely dark view of all this—see it, in fact, the beginning of the end of anything like a normal life for all the rest of us. Too pessimistic? No doubt, no doubt. I know that I am inclined that way, but that is the way I see things, and I cannot contrive to see them any differently. What is being done to our country today is surely something from which we will never be able to restore the sort of a country you and I have known.”

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