Using the Pentagon as a unifying focal point, this book explores the history of the cold war from a perspective that generally asserts that the world was darn lucky to have survived its paranoia-fueled excesses. This book flies in the face of the common perception that since we survived the cold war it logically follows that all the decisions made along the way must have been the correct decisions. The author, Carroll, takes the position that there were numerous actions taken that made conditions much worse and dangerous than necessary.
Among the points I found most interesting was the unintended consequences of certain actions taken. One example was how FDR’s use of the term “unconditional surrender” probably prolonged and increased the death toll of World War II. Another is how the fervent anti-communist rhetoric within American domestic politics increased the fear within Russian circles of the United States.
Another interesting point made by the book is how often anti-communist rhetoric was used as a cover for financial, parochial and political interests. And even politicians who perceived that the military-social-industrial complex was careening out of control, needed to go along with the fear mongering language in order to survive politically. An example is John Kennedy who is usually remembered today for stepping back from fear mongering with his Partial Test Ban Treaty. But it was Kennedy who won the 1960 presidental election partly by creating the "missile gap" issue. The missile gap turned out to be largely a matter of fearful perception rather than fact.
A related irony is Kennedy's Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, who's reputation today is largely tarnished by his involvement with the Vietnam War. But it was McNamara who imposed a rational system of administrative controls upon the Pentagon's "great white whale". "It was McNamara’s first encounter with the great white whale of Pentagon culture, and he moved immediately to harpoon it, as if he were back at Ford, killing off the Edsel."
The case can be made for crediting McNamara for the rescuing of civilian control of the military.
I was appalled to learn about some of Nixon's most bazaar behavior. He tried to scare the Russian's into pressuring the North Vietnamese to reach a peace settlement by convincing the Soviets that he was truly crazy by recklessly ordering nuclear red alerts. It's interesting to note that the Soviets never made similar moves.
To those who want to credit Reagan with winning the Cold War, the author says the following: "Against those who claim the Reagan military buildup caused the collapse of the soviet Union, post-Cold War evidence gathered from inside the former Soviet Union suggests that Reagan’s early expansion of the Pentagon budget, together with the blatant threats of U.S. military exercises and aggressive reconnaissance overflights, bolstered the Soviet militants, delaying the thaw that came only when Gorbachev forced it."
One can tell from the book's title that the author has a negative opinion of American Power. Consequently, I suspect the readers who decide to read this book consists mostly of the converted choir. I wish the author had been less flagrant in broadcasting his opinion, and instead tried explore the opposing sides of the hawks versus doves controversies. A more even handed approach may have increased the number of pro-military readers and exposed them to some of the facts contained in this book that show how dumb headed and wasteful the military mindset can be.
Here's the trivia question of the day. Why was the building called the Pentagon constructed with five sides? One little factoid gleaned from this book is that the five-sided design was drawn up to accommodate the presence of access roads at a site just upriver in the District of Columbia. FDR vetoed that site so its location was moved to its present site in Virginia. The move was done in such a hurry that there was no time for a redesign, and the shape was retained. Just imagine what the building might have been called if it had been constructed in the more conventional four sided configuration.
Here’s the short review of this book that was on my PageADay Calendar:
THE GENERALS IN THEIR LABYRINTH
James Carroll tells the story of the Pentagon building from its groundbreaking on September 11, 1941, to the present day. He also tells the story of the institution that occupies it and its growth in power and influence over the nation it ostensibly serves. Finally, there is the story of a father, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and his son (the author of this book), who drift apart as they come to have differing views of the five-sided behemoth and the vast military-industrial complex it represents.
HOUSE OF WAR: THE PENTAGON AND THE DISASTROUS RISE OF AMERICAN POWER, by James Carroll (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)