I just finished reading one of the best books on the Pentagon and U.S. foreign policy that I have ever read. The title of the book is House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power by James Carroll, the longtime columnist at the Boston Globe. The book was published in 2007 but I didn’t discover it until just recently.
The book is a deeply profound and moving account of the disastrous role that the Pentagon has played in American life. That, of course, would come as a shocking notion to most Americans, who have been inculcated with the belief that the Pentagon and its vast military establishment are essential to the security of the nation and the freedom of the American people. Actually, as Carroll carefully documents in this 600-page book, it’s the exact opposite.
The book begins with the ground-breaking for the Pentagon, which took place in 1941, even before Japan had attacked at Pearl Harbor. Then, proceeding into World War II, Carroll dares to go where others fear to tread — the Pentagon’s intentional targeting of civilians with fire-bombings in Germany and Japan, followed by the atomic bombings on the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which, Carroll argues, was totally unnecessary given that Japan was on the verge of surrendering anyway.
The problem, Carroll points out, was that President Roosevelt had previously issued his “unconditional surrender” demand, which unnecessarily prolonged the war against both Germany and Japan, given that such a demand implied the right to do whatever the victorious side wanted to do to the German and Japanese people. The Soviet Union’s policy of encouraging its soldiers to rape German women comes to mind.
Every indication is that the Japanese were ready to surrender if they could be guaranteed that their emperor would be treated well. But unconditional meant unconditional. Never mind that the United States ended up treating the emperor well anyway after Japan surrendered in the face of the two atomic bombings. As Carroll suggests, the real purpose of the atomic bombings was to serve as a message to the Soviet Union.
After the war, the Pentagon didn’t shut down. Instead, it simply geared up to fight a new war—this one against its World War II partner and ally the Soviet Union. The Pentagon did everything it could to generate a Cold War that would necessarily entail a vast permanent military establishment and ever-increasing military budgets.
But after losing more than 20 million people in World War II, not to mention the destruction of most of the country, the last thing the Soviet Union wanted was to get involved in another war, especially against a nation that had not suffered the ravages of war on its own soil and, more important, one that showed that it was more than willing to drop nuclear bombs on enemy cities.
By the time President Eisenhower was leaving office, he had come to recognize the dangers of this vast military-industrial complex, as he labeled it. It was a grave danger to America’s democratic way of life, he pointed in his Farewell Address. And it was changing the spirit of America, causing the nation to resort to many of the dark-side practices of the communist regimes that the Pentagon was confronting.
Carroll points out that while President Kennedy had come into office as a standard Cold Warrior, the Cuban Missile Crisis seared him, given that the world had come so close to total nuclear destruction. Kennedy decided to embark on a path leading to the end of the Cold War, believing that it was entirely possible for the Soviet people and American people to coexist in peace, much like the United States does today with China and Vietnam.
Carroll describes Kennedy’s famous Peace Speech at American University, a speech that was broadcast all across the Soviet Union. That was followed by a nuclear test ban entered into between the nations. There was Kennedy’s intention to withdraw all U.S. troops from Vietnam. There was his deep mistrust of the Pentagon and his famous vow to tear the CIA into a thousand pieces after the Bay of Pigs disaster and his firing of CIA Director Allen Dulles. There were also the secret negotiations between Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to bring an end to hostilities, negotiations that Kennedy chose to keep secret from both the Pentagon and the CIA, something that Carroll inexplicably doesn’t point out.
But the Pentagon would have nothing to do with Kennedy’s efforts to end the Cold War. In the minds of military officials like Gen. Curtis LeMay, who favored a first-strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, communists could never be trusted. As far as U.S. military officials were concerned, the communists were simply lulling Kennedy into complacency so that they could destroy America with a first-strike nuclear attack. Of course, the Pentagon knew that if Kennedy succeeded in bringing an end to the Cold War, there would no longer be any need for the Pentagon, the military-industrial complex, and the national-security apparatus that had been brought into existence in 1947.
With Kennedy’s assassination, the efforts to bring the Cold War to an end came to a screeching halt. Lyndon Johnson reversed Kennedy’s pro-peace policies and gave the Pentagon the war it wanted in Vietnam. The rest, as they say, is history.
Of particular interest is Carroll’s description of how close U.S. presidents and the Pentagon have brought the world to nuclear destruction. I had always thought that it only got close during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Carroll tells about other instances of where nuclear war almost occurred, owing to reckless conduct on the part of the president and the Pentagon.
Once the Cold War was over, there were many who expected a dismantling or at least a major reduction in the size of the Cold War military machine. Alas, it was not to be. Owing to the Persian Gulf War and then later the 9/11 attacks, the Pentagon, along with its legions of suppliers and contractors, has prospered beyond anyone’s wildest imaginations back in 1941, notwithstanding the major role it has played in generating the very threats it purports to protect us from.
What also makes Carroll’s book so fascinating is that his father was a 3-star general in the Pentagon during the 1960s, when Carroll was growing up, and the first director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. In fact, as Carroll’s views evolved into opposing the Vietnam War and what the Pentagon stood for, he became estranged from his father.
This is a long book but it is worth reading for anyone concerned about moving our nation in a better, freer, more peaceful direction, one that isn’t consumed by militarism, invasions, occupations, wars of aggression, sanctions, embargoes, empire, regime-change operations, support of foreign dictatorships, and foreign empire and interventionism. In fact, despite the darkness of the entire “war on terrorism” paradigm that has held our nation in its grip since 9/11, Carroll offers hope in the form of the power of ideas on liberty to bring major changes in the direction of national and world events.
Here’s a link to the press release for the book.
Here are two reviews of the book:
“A Personal Perspective on U.S. Military Might” by Julia Keller in the Chicago Tribune
“How They Learned to Love the Bomb” by John Freeman in Newsday
The following are endorsements on the dust jacket of the book:
“A passionately persuasive, thoroughly researched indictment of this nation’s defense and foreign policy since World War II.”—Miami Herald
“Learned, intelligent and thoroughly researched, House of War should be read and taken seriously by those who will disagree with its argument and who are too sure of the righteousness of their views. One can’t help wishing at the same time that Carroll were a little less sure of the righteousness of his.”—New York Times
“Carroll draws a clear and deadly arc from the bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the vengeance-ridden policies of today. His prose is elegant, his viewpoint bold.”—Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States
“Carroll’s most fascinating stories involve moments as in the Berlin crisis and the Vietnam War when civilians successfully opposed the Pentagon’s monolithic power.”—The New Yorker
“Synthesizing a great deal of information, Carroll has given us a blueprint of America’s most powerful building — not the White House, but a place where the true will to power lives in this country.”—Newsday
“[The] unique blend of historical perspective set in a personal frame makes House of War a powerful narrative.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“House of War is a prodigious historical synthesis with pressing importance for our times and also a deeply engaging story. I read it with fascination, consternation, and at times horror, and found it hard to pull away even at the end.” –Tracy Kidder, author my My Detachment: A Memoir
“There is only one writer in America with the historical depth, elegance of style, and moral complexity to have taken the full measure of this most central of American institutions. That he was in some deep sense also an insider—that he ran in the halls of the Pentagon as a young boy—only makes the match more perfect, the story more staggering.”—Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature
“The many Americans who trust the Pentagon, who cherish patriotism, piety, and the martial virtues, must be persuaded—not to distrust the Pentagon but to bring it more into line with those values, as well as with other, secular and liberal values … Few Americans, I’m afraid, will be persuaded by simplistic, angry leftism. But a great many Americans will, I predict, be persuaded and moved by James Carroll’s splendid House of War.”—George Scialabba, Virginia Quarterly Review