There was a brief peace dividend at the end of the Cold War. But after the Soviet Union fell, warmongers found a new and even better enemy. (More)
Terrorism and Team Violence, Part II: Losing the Peace Dividend
This week Morning Feature considers David Wong’s thesis on terrorism and “Team Violence.” Yesterday we began with how World War II lured our nation onto Team Violence, both in policy and in popular opinion. Today we see how the fall of the Soviet Union made it easier to stay committed to Team Violence. Tomorrow we’ll see that President Bush’s response to 9/11 was exactly what Al Qaeda wanted. Friday we’ll conclude with whether last week’s horror in Paris will keep us locked in this deadly dance, or see us finally stop the music.
“It’s the greatest defeat in our history! We should invade today!”
So bellowed Gen. Curtis LeMay on the morning October 28, 1962, as he heard that the Soviets had agreed to withdraw their missiles from Cuba. Several historians have criticized the Roger Donaldson film Thirteen Days, in part because they doubt presidential aide Kenneth O’Donnell played as large a role in that crisis as the movie portrays, and in part because the film presents our military as trying to maneuver President Kennedy into war. But many of the movie’s key scenes were taken from transcripts of White House recordings, and co-producer Peter Almond said the filmmakers cut some of most bellicose outbursts:
The hawkish Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay, who later stood with the ultra-rightwinger George Wallace for the White House, did indeed say that the “big red dog is digging in our backyard and we are perfectly right to shoot him” and growled that the “the Kennedys are going to destroy this country.”
According to Almond, they also cut one scene straight from the White House tapes where the joint chiefs of staff exchange meaty profanities about the president when he walks out of the room. “It was so over the top, as if to suggest we were making them look bad.”
Another priceless moment from the tapes, when LeMay pounded the table and bellowed, “It’s the greatest defeat in our history!…We should invade today!’ after the deal was agreed with Moscow, was also excised for the same reason.
And the historical record is clear that U.S. military leaders unanimously recommended a war in Cuba.
“The mounting risk of global catastrophe”
Yet we didn’t go to war in Cuba. And historian Ernest May – author of The Kennedy Tapes, on which the film was based – summarized why in his analysis of the movie:
For me, the movie’s less-than-perfect historical faithfulness is more than offset by its presentation of three essential truths about the Missile Crisis. The first such truth is that it was a real crisis in the medical sense of involving life or death. The film manages to convey, better than any documentary or previous dramatization, the mounting risk of global catastrophe. It accurately reproduces some of the restrained but anguished debate from the secret tapes, and it intersperses extraordinarily realistic footage of Soviet missile sites being hurriedly readied in jungle clearings, of American U-2s swooping over them, and of bombers, carrier aircraft, and U.S. missiles preparing for action. Viewers who know this movie is about a real event will leave the theater shivering with the understanding of what the Cold War could have brought.
Conservative revisionists like Andrew Roberts claim that Khrushchev won because the Castro regime remained in power. But for Kennedy, the Missile Crisis wasn’t about Fidel Castro. As May explains, the crisis was about West Germany and specifically West Berlin:
Thirteen Days captures the reality that is so clear in the tape transcripts: The crisis for Kennedy had very little to do with Cuba and much to do with the commitment he had inherited to protect two-and-a-half million West Berliners. Kennedy had no reason to suppose that the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 had diminished the desperate eagerness of the East German Communist regime to add these West Berliners to its imprisoned population. Quite the contrary: The Wall was one piece of evidence among many that the East Germans and their Soviet patrons were running out of patience. Khrushchev had warned Kennedy that he intended definitively to solve the Berlin problem later in 1962.
The one and only safeguard for West Berliners was the U.S. threat to use nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union. Anything that weakened the credibility of this threat could have forced the U.S. president to surrender West Berlin or else initiate what could have turned into global nuclear war. That was why Kennedy felt he could not let Khrushchev get away with what he had done in Cuba. The movie gets this right where so many histories have not.
Castro remained in Cuba, yes, but West Berlin remained free. That was the tradeoff. That … and avoiding a nuclear war.
“It began under a Republican president and a Democratic Congress and continued under a Democratic president and a Republican Congress”
And unlike terrorism, nuclear war truly was an existential threat. So when the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991 – and contrary to right-wing claims after 9/11 – both parties hoped for a peace dividend:
[Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney] are correct that military forces were reduced significantly under Clinton. The active-duty military totaled 1.8-million at the start of his presidency in 1993 and declined to 1.4-million in 2000. They are also correct that the naval fleet shrank dramatically. The Navy had 454 ships in 1993, but as vessels were retired and not replaced, the fleet was down to 341 by 2000.
But they are selectively choosing numbers that make it appear that the military cuts were Clinton’s alone. In fact, the cuts were prompted by the end of the Cold War during the presidency of President George H.W. Bush, a Republican.
During Bush’s presidency, he and Congress agreed to a sharp drop in military personnel. Active-duty military declined from 2.2-million to 1.8-million. Total defense forces also shrank, from 3.3-million to 2.9-million.
The Republicans are trying to portray Clinton and the Democrats as weak on defense and to make the peace dividend look like a partisan effort. But contrary to the Republicans’ claims, the post-Cold War shrinkage of the U.S. military was very much a bipartisan effort. It began under a Republican president and a Democratic Congress and continued under a Democratic president and a Republican Congress.
For a few brief years, it seemed we might turn away from Team Violence.
“And then we f–ed up the endgame”
But of course that didn’t happen. Instead we found a new enemy – terrorism – and the seeds for that were planted even as the Soviet Union was collapsing. A United States Strategic Command (Stratcom) after-action report for Stratcom’s Global Guardian exercise in 2001, contains summaries about terrorist groups from around the world. Its section on al-Qaeda states:
The group was originally brought together from elements of various insurgent military groups which have fought continuously in the Middle East since the 1980s. Some of these groups had US backing in the past.
Those groups were, of course, the mujaheddin who fought the Soviets in Afghanstan. And they did force the Soviets to withdraw in 1989. But Charlie Wilson, who pushed Congress to fund the mujaheddin, pungently summarized our failure even in that victory:
These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world … and then we fucked up the endgame.
Like Thirteen Days, Charlie Wilson’s War took liberties with historical accuracy. But Wilson actually wrote that quote:
Two messages are appended to the end of Charlie Wilson’s War, the artful Hollywood film about a hedonistic Texas congressman who in the 1980s raised covert funding for the Afghan mujaheddin from $5 million to $1 billion, thereby helping to drive the Red Army out of Afghanistan and precipitate the implosion of the Soviet Union. An explicit moral of the movie comes from the real-life Wilson, who lamented that America did the right thing in Afghanistan but messed up “the endgame.” Today there can be little doubt that Washington’s brusque loss of interest in the fate of Afghanistan after the Soviets’ withdrawal was a calamitous error.
The mujaheddin turned their wrath on the U.S., framing our “brusque loss of interest in the fate of Afghanistan” as a betrayal. It’s probably too simplistic to say that a Marshall Plan-esque postwar project would have prevented the rise of Al Qaeda. It’s likely that Osama bin Laden and many of his followers had come to love war and would have looked for a new enemy. And it’s possible they would have chosen us as that enemy, no matter how much the U.S. rebuilt in Afghanistan. But we gave them an easy excuse.
And they gave our members of Team Violence a new enemy to replace the Soviet Union. Indeed, they’re a better enemy than the Soviets. For all the conservative hyperbole about “existential threats,” Al Qaeda-cum-ISIS cannot possibly “destroy western civilization.” The Soviet Union could have … and that’s partly what kept Team Violence in check during the Cold War.
Even better – from Team Violence’s perspective – Al Qaeda-cum-ISIS is a nebulous, constantly-evolving enemy that even President George W. Bush admitted could never be completely defeated:
Victory will not look like the ones our fathers and grandfathers achieved. There will be no surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship.
The fourth long-term challenge faced by the military results from the global war on terror. This is not a conventional war. It is a generational war which will take decades to win. We need to remember this when approaching the needs of the military in the authorization and appropriations process.
If your goal is war itself, Al Qaeda-cum-ISIS is the perfect enemy. And tomorrow we’ll see how President Bush played right into their hands after 9/11.
Photo Credit: John F. Knott, 1918 (Wikimedia)