Saturday, December 26, 2009

Party Discipline

[Although the pace has slowed very considerably, people are still arriving here because they have received an email on the current state of America--including, most recently, a substantial contingent who were alerted on a web site in Germany. If you are curious about my own views of the origins and consequences of the current crisis in American life, I recommend this link. However, the email attributed to myself comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler, is a forgery which I did not write. Meanwhile, here is the best explanation I've found of why that email is so incredibly popular.]Total hits on this blog, which reached 500-1000 per day for much of the summer and fall, are now at about 200 a day, but the good news is that the vast majority of those now know what they are getting and actually want the real product. In another welcome development, while I received a phone call at my home from an adoring reader of that email on Thanksgiving, yesterday I got no such call.

Like the break-up of a long and difficult relationship, the Senate's passage of the health care bill brought, to begin with, a sense of enormous relief. The continuing controversies which the bill must surmount, including the one about abortion, actually offer some hope that we may be moving into a new phase of our political life. The abortion compromise, to begin with, has drawn heated opposition from both the right and the left. More interestingly, it has also split Catholic hospitals, which favor the bill with the compromise, from the Catholic hierarchy, which opposes it. The split within one of our most ideological political constituencies between purists and some on the firing line of public policy who want to get something done is welcome.

That, in turn, brings me to an essay that I would like to share, from Nate Silver, the baseball analyst turned political analyst who writes the blog Thanks to Bill James, whose ideas have probably changed the thinking of more Americans on a subject of general interest (baseball), the analysis of baseball statistics has crossed several intellectual frontiers over the past three decades. Silver, now 31, came from the younger generation of analysts and contributed key concepts to, a site which not only tries to estimate the worth of individual players, but also spends a lot of time analyzing winning strategies for teams. It took about twenty years for sabermetrics, as the discipline is called, to penetrate into baseball front offices, but several general managers, led by Billy Beane of the Oakland As and Theo Epstein of my own Red Sox (who hired James), have been using it to improve their teams, with remarkable results, for some time. (In Beane's case sound judgment enabled him to keep the As in the playoffs for quite a few years despite vastly inferior financial resources, but his luck has run out for the time being.)

Silver's essay, which I want to summarize, is a great example of how data can open up our thinking. It deals, really, with the critical issue of party and ideological loyalty, which is playing such an enormous role in Washington just now. One reading gave me an entirely new way of looking at the issue of Blue Dog Democrats and how mainstream Democrats like myself should see them. It was not an entirely new view, but I needed reminding.

The essay compared the voting records of every member of the House on ten crucial votes this year to the Cook Partisan Voting Index (PVI) for his district. The PVI simply compares the presidential vote in that district during the last two elections to the vote in the whole country. Silver correlated the percentage of times that each Congressman voted with the Administration with its district's PVI. That gave him a set of correlations between the PVI of a district (such as R+10, or 10% Republican, or D+7, or 7% Democrat) and how the representative voted on each of these ten key issues. (The whole article, including the list of issues he used, is here.

The next step is more subtle, but critical to understanding what Silver did. First, he arranged the study to evaluate Democratic Congressmen (he's a Democrat) based on the worth of their presence in the House to their party. Every time a Democrat voted FOR an Administration measure, Silver subtracted his district's PVI from 1, and the result became the Congressman's score on that particular vote. Thus, while my own Patrick Kennedy, whose district's PVI must be around 60% (based on our votes in the last two elections) voted for the stimulus package, he got a score of .40 . But if a Democrat from a district with a PVI of .37 from a Democratic view--that is, a district whose Democratic vote in 2004 and 2008 averaged 37%--then he would receive a score on that vote of .63, and count, by Silver's reckoning, as a more valuable Democrat. Silver, in fact, used this method to identify the ten most valuable Democrats in the House--but that's not what I'm going to focus on right now.

Instead, more generally, I would like to suggest that this measurement allows mainstream or left-wing Democrats like myself to evaluate our more conservative fellow party members more realistically. The issue is not how often they agree with us, because if a Democrat in a strongly Republican-leaning district (of which there are now quite a few) always voted with us, he or she would probably lose next time around. The issue is whether such people vote with the Administration at a higher rate than their PVI would suggest they should. If they do, we should support their continued presence as the best alternative available. If they don't, then there's no reason to be particularly upset if they are defeated or switch parties, since a Republican would vote about the same way most of the time. (We are, of course, talking about the House here, not the Senate, where Democrats now need every single one of their votes--but I'll return to that later.)

And indeed, there are also Democrats, including the other one from my state, James Langevin, whose votes on the whole are to the right of their district--that is, they vote for the Administration less often than most representatives whose districts have comparable PVIs. They are the ones who, logically, should face primary opposition. They may be better than a Republican from a Democratic point of view, but they are certainly not the best Democrat that that district could elect.

This brings us to the notorious Senator Lieberman, the Democrats' 60th vote in the Senate. There are few if any Americans who have come to dislike him more than myself, but given the situation in which we find ourselves, the decision to let him keep his seniority was correct. There will be absolutely no reason, however, to show him the slightest mercy in the election of 2012, because he is almost surely the most conservative Senator that Connecticut could ever elect. Any other Democrat would be a vast improvement, and no Republican can possibly be elected in that race anyway--even, in my judgment, Lieberman, should he switch parties.

And what of the Republicans? To put it bluntly, they have become far too partisan to pay attention to anything as logical as Silver's analysis. The majority of the Republican Party now rejects any Republican who will not toe the party line on a wide range of issues (including, or should I say especially, social issues), no matter where that Republican comes from. The Republicans drove Arlen Spector out of their party immediately after Rick Santorum, an arch-conservative, had been beaten in Pennsylvania because Spector was too liberal. As a result, they will have no Senators from Pennsylvania for some time to come. (That does not mean, however, that Democrats should be eager to keep Spector in office--Pennsylvania certainly could elect a far more liberal Democrat than he.) As my former Senator Lincoln Chafee often remarks, every Republican from the Northeast or other liberal parts of the country fears a primary challenge if they vote for abortion rights, or for the President's stimulus, or, obviously, for health care reform. That presumably is why both Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine continue to oppose the health care bill.

I remain extremely concerned about the future of the country and the Obama Administration for a different reason. Consensus is obviously necessary to pass anything nowadays, but it may also, at least for time being, make it impossible to pass anything effective. The Health Care Reform Act is not scheduled to come into effect until 2014, making it not only possible, but, one might suggest, logical for insurance companies to deny coverage as often as possible in the meantime. We may desperately need stronger regulatory and job-creation measures than a consensus, at the moment, will pass, in order to promote genuine economic recovery. But Gen Xers like Silver (and the President!), who focus relentlessly upon results, have what amounts to an insurmountable argument: there's no point holding a line that is certain to be outflanked. Despite all the talk about Roosevelt's hundred days, the struggle for the New Deal lasted for the whole of his three terms. We have begun more slowly and may have at least as far to go. Within that context, the health care bill is an important step, and we have to make sure that it becomes the first of many.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Lincoln or Hoover?

As the year draws to a close it has become clear that President Obama, our sixth crisis President (after Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Hoover, FDR, and perhaps George W. Bush), is not the new Franklin Roosevelt that many of us dreamed he might be. For reasons to which I have often alluded here, that is not really his fault. FDR came into office in conditions of completely unprecedented distress and desperation, possessed of huge majorities in both houses, and even enjoying some bipartisan support. He also could draw on a cadre of progressive reformers--many with backgrounds in social work--to transform the federal government's role. Our problems today are the most serious we have faced since then, but one party remains in complete denial, and the other--the Democrats--are significantly split. In addition, President Obama seems to have come into office with a reformist rather than a transformative agenda. His health care proposal, the centerpiece of his agenda this year, drew on long-established ideas. The stimulus was a one-shot emergency measure that the Democrats and the White House show now signs of wanting to repeat. And the President, as I wrote last year, has not, as his initial speeches suggested he might, transformed our foreign policy. He is winding down the Iraq war--something the feelings of the Iraqis themselves might well have made necessary in any case--but he is doubling down in Afghanistan and Pakstan, about which I may have more to say as I sit here snowbound tomorrow.

President Obama would never have reached the White House without acute political sense, and he has been dealing, daily, with current political realities for some years. Sad to say, he may have been pushing as hard as anyone could. Yet he may be suffering from a real misconception about the state of the nation. His policies, particularly in the economic sphere, seem to suggest that we do not in fact need fundamental reforms parallel to those of the New Deal and the immediate postwar era. In Larry Summers, in particular--who declared last week that everyone knows the recession is over, thus going Herbert Hoover, who talked of good times just around the corner, one better--he has a man who obviously refuses to recognize that there is anything wrong with the freewheeling financial institutions that he, in the Clinton Administration, helped to create, that a few hundred billion dollars of government funds will not cure. If Summers is right, employment will start to grow, albeit slowly, by the second half of next year. If he is wrong, and we are suffering from long-term structural problems that need to be addressed, the consequences will be both politically and economically disastrous. Indeed, it is not inconceivable that such an approach could turn the Obama Administration into the new Hoover Administration.

Hoover was, as I indicated years ago, a very different kind of man that Obama. He was, in generational terms a Prophet, not a Nomad, and he suffered, like George W. Bush, from an excessive faith in his own instincts and opinions. Yet he was neither a fool nor a knave. He had an impressive record as a businessman and an administrator. He took steps to deal with the depression, one of which, the Reconstruction Finance Commission--a kind of institutionalized TARP, but one that lent money to industrial enterprises rather than to banks--remained a pillar of the New Deal all through the Roosevelt Administration. But he also had firm principles, including an unshakable prejudice against any direct or indirect government assistance to the unemployed. Had the economy rebounded during his last two years he might have been vindicated--but it did not. By the beginning of 1932 Hoover in his State of the Union address was reduced to complimenting the American people for not having resorted to revolution or violence, unlike other nations. The people completely lost faith in him and his approach, opening the way for the Roosevelt revolution.

Sadly, it does not seem to me impossible that a similar fate could befall the current Administration. While I have been writing this post Senator Ben Nelson, the most powerful man in America this week, has announced his support for a health care bill. It will evidently do little or nothing to cut costs and break the power of the insurance companies (which some are beginning to compare to the utility companies of 80 years ago, for which the New Deal provided both competition and regulation), and it is thus unlikely to cut costs. But in any case it will do nothing to help the average unemployed American for at least a couple of years, and even then, the help will be marginal. Shockingly--and this really is a provision I do not think the Administration can afford politically--it will not even end the denial of insurance based upon pre-existing conditions until 2014. It gives those without employer-based insurance the right to buy US-government sponsored plans (like my own), but it is not yet clear to me who will pick up the employer's share and make them affordable. I have just read that the bill includes another awful provision, one allowing companies to sell any plan anywhere in the United States, and thus to evade stringent regulations and appeals processes in tough states, just as credit card companies already do. The White House seems to think that the mere act of signing the bill will project an image of effectiveness and accomplishment and create some momentum leading into the mid-term elections. It is true that the public, by substantial majorities, supports health care, including far more radical options than are going to pass--but it is simply not the most pressing concern, I would suspect, of those on the lower end of the economic spectrum. They need jobs. (Earlier this week, Arianna Huffington expressed these same fears rather eloquently, pointing out that Larry Summers is sounding more and more like Chauncey Gardner in Being There promising growth in the spring.)

The Lincoln Administration offers a different parallel, one which may become critical to President Obama's success. Like Obama, Lincoln came into office hoping to re-establish a minimum of consensus within the United States--which at that moment meant avoiding the break-up of the Union. For the better part of two months his policies successfully persuaded Virginia and North Carolina, at least, not to secede--but when the firing on Fort Sumter led to open war, he lost them as well, and began a military response. He used martial law to keep Maryland in the Union after Virginia and North Carolina left, but he most certainly did not, however, take any serious steps against slavery. Just as Obama is now a hostage to the progress of our economy, he was a hostage to the progress of the Northern armies, and particularly of the Army of the Potomac and General McLellan. Because McLellan's invasion of southern Virginia ended disastrously and because the North was still not solidly behind the war, the Democratic Party began doing very well in elections during 1862. (Elections in those days were held at different times throughout the year in different states.)

Lincoln's short-term response was to move in a more radical direction. First, the Emancipation Proclamation, while formally emancipating slaves only where Lincoln had no power to do so--inside the Confederacy itself--put him definitely in the abolitionist camp. Secondly, he fired McLellan because the general evidently lacked enough offensive spirit to actually crush the southern armies. Thirdly, he increased the pace of mobilization, to include even the very controversial draft. It took another two years for all those steps to pay off, but by late 1864 victory over the South was clearly in sight, and he was overwhelmingly re-elected.

We shall not see such dramatic events over the next three years, but the President needs a significant, if incomplete, economic recovery, such as Roosevelt enjoyed by the end of 1936, in order to regain momentum and perhaps even to make sure he is re-elected. Many of the younger voters who put him in office will surely vote next time based upon their economic situations. Meanwhile, if--as I believe--the financial system is still fundamentally unsound, then the danger of another crisis remains present. It will be devastating to whatever Administration is in power when it occurs.

Like Lincoln in his early years, President Obama seems to me to be suffering from a serious inhibition. He wants to avoid confirming his enemies' image of him. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the issue of taxes. The President is now also taking political heat because of the size of the deficit, which as a percentage of the GDP is higher than at any time since the end of the Second World War (although a long way from being as large as it was during that war.) Republicans, of course, are acting as if this problem first emerged on January 21, 2009. The following graph, produced by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities with the help of data from the Congressional Budget Office, very usefully tells us where our current woes come from.

This table seems to leave no doubt that the Bush tax cuts were, and remain, the principal cause of our financial crisis. Had the Bush Administration maintained the existing tax code, the then-existing surplus would have been eaten up by the recession of 2001 and the wars that Bush began, but the country would have been in far better financial shape to meet the current crisis. Tax increases on the highest brackets, it seems to me, would be an obvious political winner right now, particularly since the highest incomes--those enjoyed by investment bankers--are recovering so much more quickly than those of average Americans. Yet Obama in his first two years is teaching taxes the way Lincoln initially treated abolition, as the third rail that he does not want to touch. This is all the more serious since, as I have argued many times, low tax rates on the wealthy have done so much to strengthen the financial sector of our economy relative to the industrial sector, and to promote irresponsible financial practices that have already led to several crises and, I think, will inevitably lead to more.

It is, of course, because our situation is nowhere near as serious as it was in 1933 that the response has been so much more measured in its consequences. History, as Tocqueville wrote, is full of such paradoxes. And we face a truly new problem this time around. Never before, either in 1861 or in 1933, has Washington been inhabited by such a powerful army of lobbyists dedicated to the preservation--and indeed the growth--of an old order that has become dysfunctional. Had the southern states not seceded in 1861 and left their representatives in Washington, slavery could easily have been maintained where it existed for decades more. Ironically, white southerners destroyed the institution by deciding to make war over it. (So inconclusive were the results of the war, however, that they managed to re-establish white supremacy within two decades--another interesting lesson.) Our evils today are not nearly so grave as in 1861, and our economic situation--at least so far--is nowhere near as bad as in 1933. Because of this, most of those at the highest level--including in the White House itself--still believe that a modified form of business as usual is all we need. I am not convinced.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Peace or war?

President Obama clearly sees himself as a consensus-builder, both politically and, as it turns out, in the world of ideas. This week found him in the midst of an unfortunate coincidence: he had to accept the Nobel Peace Prize after announcing the escalation of the war in Afghanistan. The result was both eloquent and oddly ambivalent, and left room for almost any kind of foreign policy over the next few years. Like Franklin Roosevelt in 1937, the year of his ambiguous "quarantine" speech, the President seems to be looking for new ways to cope with a violent world--but like FDR, he remains trapped, it seems, by the political legacy of his time, however different Obama's may be today.

The President began by referring to some of the great idealists who had won the prize, such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., but promptly said that he feels he must deal with the world as it is, including the war his predecessor bequeathed him in Afghanistan.

"But 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 non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason."

Only a thoroughgoing pacifist--and we do not elect such to high office--could disagree with the principle behind that statement, but the implication that evil must always be met with force is disturbing. Certainly the vision for which the United States fights its wars is nearly always inspiring, but unfortunately, war often does less than nothing to turn it into reality. The ability to identify cases in which force will actually improve the situation is the single most important test of statesmanship. The President proceeded to address that question, but from only one particular perspective.

"To begin with, I believe that all nations -- strong and weak alike -- must adhere to standards that govern the use of force. I -- like any head of state -- reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation. Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards, international standards, strengthens those who do, and isolates and weakens those who don't."

In fact, the United States during the last 60 years would have done much better had it confined itself to wars actively embraced by its major allies. They backed the initial intervention in Korea, but generally opposed the disastrous advance beyond the 38th parallel. Most of them had no interest in helping us in Vietnam. They backed Gulf War I, but (with the major exception of Britain), disdained Gulf War II. And they backed the initial intervention in Afghanistan--and, influenced by President Obama's enormous political capital, are now extending a bit more help to him there.

The President now bowed to another powerful tradition in American foreign policy, especially within his own party--that of humanitarian interventionism.

"And this becomes particularly important when the purpose of military action extends beyond self-defense or the defense of one nation against an aggressor. More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government, or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region.

"I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That's why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace."

The President is a very smart man and I must believe that he knows things are not that simple. Peacekeeping did not end the conflict in Bosnia until it had essentially burnt itself out and ethnic cleansing had taken place on a grand scale. The Kossovo war stopped the ethnic cleansing of Albanians by Serbs, but has led to a gentler, more gradual cleansing of Serbs by Albanians. In Iraq, a war which the President had the sense to oppose, the presence of well over 100,000 American troops could not even prevent a civil war involving the ethnic cleansing of perhaps two million people from taking place. The model he is proposing--of a multilateral intervention by advanced nations to stop an ongoing civil war or overthrow a repressive regime--has never been successful in modern times.

The most Rooseveltian passage, so reminiscent of FDR's call for a "quarantine" of aggressors after the Sino-Japanese War had broken out in 1937, resumed the search for a magic bullet that began about a century ago.

"First, in dealing with those nations that break rules and laws, I believe that we must develop alternatives to violence that are tough enough to actually change behavior -- for if we want a lasting peace, then the words of the international community must mean something. Those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable. Sanctions must exact a real price. Intransigence must be met with increased pressure -- and such pressure exists only when the world stands together as one."

Sadly, President Obama has not decided to give frequent press conferences. If he did, he, like FDR, would probably face a question as to exactly what he has in mind. The record of economic sanctions as a means of changing the behavior of hostile states is almost uniformly discouraging. The example of Cuba, where 50 years of sanctions have done nothing but impose misery upon the Cuban people, is only the most striking of many.

Then President Obama addressed the issue of nuclear proliferation--in guarded terms that left open at least the possibility of reviving his predecessor's policy of preventive war.

"One urgent example is the effort to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, and to seek a world without them. In the middle of the last century, nations agreed to be bound by a treaty whose bargain is clear: All will have access to peaceful nuclear power; those without nuclear weapons will forsake them; and those with nuclear weapons will work towards disarmament. I am committed to upholding this treaty. It is a centerpiece of my foreign policy. And I'm working with President Medvedev to reduce America and Russia's nuclear stockpiles.

"But it is also incumbent upon all of us to insist that nations like Iran and North Korea do not game the system. Those who claim to respect international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flouted. Those who care for their own security cannot ignore the danger of an arms race in the Middle East or East Asia. Those who seek peace cannot stand idly by as nations arm themselves for nuclear war."

I have of course been cheered by the President's advocacy of the elimination of nuclear weapons and his recognition of everyone's obligations under the Non-proliferation Treaty. That treaty, however, was an agreement among sovereign states, which any of them can legally denounce. For 55 years deterrence was our strategy against unfriendly nations that insisted upon having them. It should in my opinion remain our strategy against nuclear North Korea and potentially nuclear Iran. But it is far from clear that the President shares that view, based on the passage above. And he also opened the door to armed intervention to deal with repressive regimes.

"The same principle applies to those who violate international laws by brutalizing their own people. When there is genocide in Darfur, systematic rape in Congo, repression in Burma -- there must be consequences. Yes, there will be engagement; yes, there will be diplomacy -- but there must be consequences when those things fail. And the closer we stand together, the less likely we will be faced with the choice between armed intervention and complicity in oppression.

It was at this point that the speech began to branch in several opposing directions. To begin with, the President discussed the conflict between realism and idealism, using language surprisingly reminiscent of George W. Bush.

"I reject these choices. I believe that peace is unstable where citizens are denied the right to speak freely or worship as they please; choose their own leaders or assemble without fear. Pent-up grievances fester, and the suppression of tribal and religious identity can lead to violence. We also know that the opposite is true. Only when Europe became free did it finally find peace. America has never fought a war against a democracy, and our closest friends are governments that protect the rights of their citizens. No matter how callously defined, neither America's interests -- nor the world's -- are served by the denial of human aspirations."

But at the same time, he endorsed what used to be called detente.

"Let me also say this: The promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone. At times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy. I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach -- condemnation without discussion -- can carry forward only a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door.

"In light of the Cultural Revolution's horrors, Nixon's meeting with Mao appeared inexcusable -- and yet it surely helped set China on a path where millions of its citizens have been lifted from poverty and connected to open societies. Pope John Paul's engagement with Poland created space not just for the Catholic Church, but for labor leaders like Lech Walesa. Ronald Reagan's efforts on arms control and embrace of perestroika not only improved relations with the Soviet Union, but empowered dissidents throughout Eastern Europe. There's no simple formula here. But we must try as best we can to balance isolation and engagement, pressure and incentives, so that human rights and dignity are advanced over time."

I was sorry that the President did not do more to put today's threats in historical perspective. Al Queda is reportedly down to a strength of several hundred men--a figure which certainly calls the dispatch of 30,000 more Americans, and about 100,000 overall, to Afghanistan, into question. I am doubtful, too, that large-scale interventions are going to bring peace to the most troubled areas of Africa and Asia. Lastly, as I remarked after the Afghanistan speech, I am troubled when Christians or Jews tell Muslims what the Islamic religion does and does not allow, rather than appeal to international norms of behavior. The President's speech is a setback for those who, like myself, wanted him to steer a fundamentally different course from his predecessors, but it has so many different strains within it that, like Roosevelt's quarantine speech, it tells us little or nothing about what we will actually do in the years ahead.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Obama and Afghanistan

As a loyal citizen and a loyal Democrat, I hope that the decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan will produce a good result. Yet I cannot believe that it will. At worst, it will bring us to the end of the road to hell George W. Bush started us down almost exactly 8 years ago by bringing Islamists to power in Pakistan. At best, it will tie down our resources and attention for another three or four more years, only to produce an inconclusive and unpromising outcome rather like the one we can now see in Iraq. Meanwhile, I cannot believe that it will be politically advantageous to the Administration--certainly not among the voters, as opposed to the punditocracy of Washington, D. C.

In my opinion--and I could be wrong--this latest step is a victory for Osama Bin Laden and all he represents. 9/11, I have come to believe, was, from Bin Laden's perspective, a political master stroke. He wanted above all to discredit the Muslim regimes allied with the United States--and by provoking the invasions of two Muslim countries by George W. Bush, he gave a big boost to Islamic radicalism. The loss of Taliban power in Afghanistan was a setback that has now largely been made good. The elimination of Saddam Hussein was a boon both for Bin Laden and for Iran. What Bin Laden must fear more than anything else, and certainly more than his own death, is that he might return to the obscurity he so richly deserves. President Obama's decision insures that that will not happen any time soon.

For twenty years I have been teaching courses that relentlessly harp upon the same point: the results of any military action ultimately depend on its political effects, which in turn depend on political factors. Our policy depends on two political assumptions: that Afghanistan can create a viable government, and that Pakistan will prove itself at long last a dependable ally. Try as I might, I cannot put any faith in either assumption. We still have not found our way around the great unmentionable of the situation in Afghanistan: that the Taliban has come back in large part because powerful elements within the Pakistani government want it back in power in Afghanistan. And we are also refusing to face another unmentionable: that our policies in Afghanistan and in the tribal areas of Pakistan have made the Taliban a much more significant threat within Pakistan itself.

This evening as I drove home from work I heard Secretary of State Clinton proudly announce that NATO had pledged an additional 7000 troops. I was sad to think that for the next two years at least, the senior Obama national security team will be focused upon the fate of one of the poorest and remotest nations on earth, simply because, nine years ago, a terrorist attack on the United States was plotted there. I still think that the idea that we must create friendly, cooperative states in Muslim areas where states have failed or never existed is neither justifiable nor, above all, cost-effective. Attacks can be plotted anywhere and Bin Laden is now surely living in Pakistan. As my friend Andrew Bacevich explained two mornings ago on NPR, putting American troops in Afghanistan is not the way to head off new attacks in the west.

I am also worried about the purely military problem in Afghanistan. Empires based on naval supremacy such as the British in the last three centuries and the United States in the last 60 years do best in coastal regions. Afghanistan is landlocked and our supply lines, from Pakistan and Central Asia, are politically and militarily vulnerable. The longer that we keep large forces in ungovernable Muslim areas, the more sophisticated IED's will become.

I was sad listening to President Obama the other night because it seemed at times that he was trying to be himself and George W. Bush at the same time. I was particularly shocked when he accused terrorists of defiling the Muslim religion--it may be true, but it is not the place of non-Muslims to say so. He is taking a huge gamble, counting on his already enormous worldwide prestige to lead the world to fall in behind this new step--but, like JFK at the Bay of Pigs, also betting much of it on a very questionable enterprise. And he is taking a bigger risk at home. It is not generally understood that Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 initially pulled back from world affairs, and that until at least 1938 he ran a far more isolationist Administration than Herbert Hoover. He knew his most important work was at home. So is President Obama's.

Obama's decision has already won grudging endorsements from some Republicans (although the opposite decision could have done the same.) Given the overwhelming prejudice of our foreign policy establishment towards military action, he, like Lyndon Johnson in 1965, made the consensus foreign policy decision--which does not in the least make it the wisest one. I suspect he has disappointed a great many people around the world, but I hope it all works out.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Discipline and freedom

[Although the pace has slowed, people are still arriving here because they have received an email on the current state of America. If you are curious about my own views of the origins and consequences of the current crisis in American life, I recommend this link. However, the email attributed to myself comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler, is a forgery which I did not write. All visitors may also be interested to read the following post. Meanwhile, here is the best explanation I've found of why that email is so incredibly popular.]

Last week, as often happens, a news item, read in the context of my current research, brought home to me the enormous changes in American life that have taken place during my adult life--changes that have involved significant steps forward at the individual level, but huge steps backward at the political and national economic level. The question now before us, in many ways, is whether we can manage to combine the far greater personal liberty we have achieved over the last forty years with the capacity to subordinate some of our personal beliefs to the greater good and establish some new and friendlier centers of authority.

My current research, as I have mentioned, focuses on the US preparation for, and decisions leading to, our entry into the Second World War. One cannot read very far into the archives of that era without realizing that the United States was then an entirely different country. The organizational effort that was involved in mobilization was altogether beyond anything that we would be capable of today. To go within three years from a military force of less than one million men to one of ten million was only one aspect of this. During the same period--from late 1940 to 1944--huge new industrial enterprises were built, tens of thousands of workers moved around the country to make them run, the Navy doubled in size, and the country built hundreds of merchant ships as well. Such an effort required organizational skill, which in turn depended, in large measure, on respect for authority. We understood in those days that a great undertaking required chiefs and Indians, and I frequently encounter men of all political persuasions, from Harold Ickes of the Interior Department to Frank Knudsen of General Motors (who contributed his services as one of the heads of Roosevelt's War Production Board), that no enterprise could function if a single man were not in charge. This did not mean that authority was either arbitrary or unrestrained. FDR insisted that war mobilization not involve any erosion of workers' rights and New Deal benefits, and except for voluntary no-strike pledges during the war,it did not. The same spirit continued, in many ways, through the 1950s and into the 1960s.

The great rebellion of the 1960s fought against the moral authority of a dying civilization, really the remnants of the Victorian era (and we should keep in mind that the grandparents of many Boomers were born when Victoria was still very much alive. It began as a rebellion against sexual taboos for young adults, quickly led to an explosion of divorce rates throughout society, and eventually became the most effective movement in history for women's rights, and the first for gay rights. Along with all this came a demystification of family life, acknowledging that parental influences could be very harmful, and encouraging people of all ages to acknowledge uncomfortable truths about those around them. All these changes have transformed our society. Because they have not been universally accepted, they have also become critical political issues--a most unfortunate development, in my opinion, which has diverted attention from the real business of government. But along with them, sadly, went a loss of respect for tradition and authority of all kinds. Boomer academics threw out a century of gradually acquired knowledge in the humanities and started over. Eventually Boomer bankers successfully agitated for the repeal of the New Deal legislation that their grandparents had put in place to restrain their parents. The individual, rather than the group, became our focus--a very important correction, undoubtedly, to the excesses of an era that had indeed become too standardized, too militarily threatening, and too mistrustful of human feeling. But like so many of such corrections, it has now destroyed much of the intellectual framework we need to cope with great national problems. The substitution of sound bites for any systematic analysis of them is in my opinion another manifestation of the same kind of problem.

The hook which got me thinking about all this was a story from the New York Times last Thursday about Claudette Colvin, a woman of 70 who has now been the subject of an award-winning children's book. In 1955 Ms. Colvin was a black teen-ager in Montgomery, Alabama, and it turns out that she had been arrested for refusing to yield her seat to a white woman on a city bus some months before Rosa Parks's more famous arrest, which ignited the bus boycott. According to the book about her by Philip House, however, the local NAACP decided not to make her a test case, partly because (although it is not clear from the whole story why) they did not think of her as a suitable symbol. Later, after the boycott began, Ms. Colvin's own mother, Colvin now says, told her that Rosa Parks would garner more white sympathy because her skin was lighter. I have not seen Mr. House's book, but the Times story, I can say confidently, leaves a very misleading impression about how the bus boycott actually got going and, more importantly, why it was successful.

The article mentions that Rosa Parks was, in fact, the secretary of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP, in those days by far the leading civil rights organization in the country and already a significant political power in Washington, D. C., and, though its legal defense fund, in the courts, where it had carried on a successful twenty-year campaign against segregated education culminating in Brown v. Board of Education a year before. But it doesn't mention the real difference between Rosa Park's refusal to give up her seat and that of both Claudette Colvin and another teen-ager, May Louise Smith, in the months before the crisis erupted. Colvin and Smith acted spontaneously. Rosa Parks did not. Her move was a planned first step designed to lead to controversy and to an immediate black boycott of the bus system, organized by the NAACP and by the young local pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr. The NAACP had learned from the world it lived in over the previous twenty years, becoming a formidable oganization under the leadership of Walter White and Roy Wilkins. They planned this campaign the way John L. Lewis or Walter and Victor Reuther planned union organizing campaigns. And it was a good thing that they did, because it took a full year for the boycott to lead to the negotiated end of segregated transportation in Montgomoery. The black community had to organize and maintain its own transportation network to get its people to and from work without the buses--and they did. And they very possibly did pick Rosa Parks to trigger the boycott and become its symbol because they knew and trusted her, because she was clearly a responsible middle-aged adult, and yes, conceivably, even because of her skin color. While that last factor may today make us all cringe, it would have been quite in character, in those days, for the NAACP to make such a decision based on the need to attract as much white sympathy as possible. That was how they had managed to accomplish as much as they had in the previous decades.

Indeed, it is fair to say that among no part of American society was the generational revolt more profound during the 1960s than among the black community. That was brought home to me again glancing through the autobiographies of Arthur Ashe, the great black tennis player and activist. A first-wave Boomer or last-wave Silent, born in 1943, Ashe grew up in segregated Richmond and was taught, as he explained again and again, that the only hope for black people to be successful in a white world--and in his case, that meant breaking in to the all-white world of professional tennis--was to be more accomplished, more courteous, and more dedicated to American ideals than whites. That kind of behavior had many tragic costs. In Ashe's case, I suspect, 36 years of continually suppressed rage--worsened by the trauma of losing his own mother when he was a small child--probably contributed to his early onset of heart disease, which in turn led to his contracting tranfusion AIDS and dying in his early 50s. The black rebellion of the 1960s--like the white--was above all a rebellion against the older generation's values. For young black Boomers that meant rejecting their parents' deference and respect for society's institutions. It also meant exalting spontaneity over organization. In the last forty years individual black people have advanced enormously, but the great civil rights organizations are a thing of the past.

Certain institutions within our society are still well-organized, if not always disciplined--including the new mega-banks, the drug companies, the gun lobby, evangelical Christian political groups, and the health insurance industry. There are, as far as I can see, no comparable organizations among the disadvantaged. That is the world with which President Obama and his Administration must now cope, and it is not surprising that they have so far made little impact upon it. And beyond this lies a broader question: will some future generations eventually learn to combine personal and emotional freedom on the one hand, with economic restraint on behalf of the general good on the other? Perhaps even to ask that question betrays, on my part, a somewhat naive faith in a future utopia that can combine the best of different eras from the past. Perhaps it would be better to accept that different eras inevitably highlight different aspects of human nature, both better and worse.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Living Through History

The great crises of American history, from the American Revolution and the writing of the Constitution through the Civil War and onward to the Depression and Second World War, look very different in retrospect than they did at the time. We experience them over days or weeks of reading or, in the case of historians like myself, intermittent years of study, but even then, they go much more quickly in one's office or study than they did at the time. We now know what would endure and what would not, what achievements would have the greatest long-term impact, and what new problems would be left behind for future generations. Those like myself who expected the crisis may be even more disappointed than others because so many of our fellow countrymen have not yet grasped how deep our problems are--not to speak of an angry minority who, if history can be trusted, never will. Tonight marks another milestone in the Obama Administration. The Senate has voted on strict party lines to allow the health care reform bill to come to the floor, allowing us to hope that some version of it will indeed be passed. Yet during this same week, other evidence has suggested how far we have to go--and the events of the past year have also made clear how much this crisis differs from the last one.

Thus, in 1932 and in 2008, a series of catastrophes led to a change of Administration, in each case from a laissez-faire Republican to an activist Democrat. In both cases this result had been foreshadowed by the Congressional elections of two years previously, which had given the Democrats control of at least one house of Congress. Yet the timing was in many ways profoundly different. The economic crisis had lasted for three horrible years when FDR won election, but less than one when Obama won his. That has had two very different, but serious, impacts upon the Administration, the Republican opposition, and the country.

To begin with, Obama, unlike Roosevelt, did not come to power in the midst of a crisis so serious that no even halfway reasonable person could deny the need for drastic, unprecedented action. Even now unemployement is only about half what it was in March 1933. Our banking system has been threatened with collapse; theirs was collapsing, and without the backing of the FDIC. The initial New Deal measures, including the NRA--which actually gave the government the kind of coordinating power over the private sector that today's "conservatives" claim that Obama wants--sailed through with large majorities, and the country was at least as unified during 1933 as it was on the eve of war in 1941, if not more so. Things had not gone half so far in January 2009, and the Republican Party decided it could rely on a stance of total opposition, one that has gotten worse, not better, as the year has gone on. Two Republican Senators from Maine voted for the stimulus. Neither voted to allow debate on the health care reform measure tonight. In addition, as many observers (led by the excellent website ) have pointed out, Democrats from districts and states that rejected Obama are terribly frightened of voting for his major initiatives.

Health care reform, while desperately necessary, will do no immediate political good--it will take years to implement even the relatively modest reforms we are now talking about, and a lot longer to control costs. Jobs are even more necessary, both for the health of the nation and the political health of the President and his party. Here the Administration has been too cautious and the voters of New Jersey, in particular, seem to have taken their anger out on the Democrats. There are, however, signs that the Congress, whose rear ends are on the line, is taking note, and talk of another stimulus package. Perhaps this time it should frankly take the form of large grants to state and local governments, who are cutting back education and other services at a truly alarming rate, and therefore increasing unemployment and slowing recovery. The Administration needs to make the voters feel that it is acting on their behalf, and by the time Obama runs for re-election he will have to have presented a coherent long-term plan for the economy.

Another problem was highlighted Friday by Paul Krugman in one of his scariest columns. It explained to me, for the first time, why the big banks--apparently on the verge of collapse only a year ago--have rebounded so dramatically (although there are still big questions about Bank of America in particular.) Prominent among their worthless assets were the collateralized debt obligations and other exotic instruments they had bought from AIG--their supposed protection against an economic downturn (yes, that's right!) on which AIG could not pay off. The AIG rescue, arranged by the Bush Administration last year, it turns out, actually committed the Federal Government to pay off those obligations, rather than force the big banks to take some responsibility for their own folly and take a substantial loss. Timothy Geithner, then head of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, was apparently on board with this, and there is no sign that he wants to see the superbanks take a big hit--much less bring back something like the late, lamented Glass-Steagall Act and put them out of business. In my opinion, this leaves us with at least a 50-50 chance of another major financial crisis during the next three years or so. Meanwhile, as Krugman has pointed out, the federal government has used up an enormous amount of its resources and its political capital without bringing about any real change in a dysfunctional system. The powers that be, led by Geithner and Larry Summers, were not yet ready to acknowledge that it was necessary. Sadly, almost every other available distinguished economic policy maker would have done the same. It takes more than one year of crisis, however frightening, to bring truly new ideas into the policy arena.

And as if that were not enough, the sectional divisions within the country, while not yet quite as bad as in the 1860s when they led to actual war, are actually far worse than they were in the 1930s. The South in the 1930s was sufficiently devastated by the Depression to welcome the New Deal, and indeed, for three decades certain areas of the region--especially those served by the Tennessee Valley Authority, including both Tennessee and large parts of Alabama--sent men to Washington who were economic liberals. But politics in most of the South--including that new electoral giant, Texas--have now been dominated by social issues, race, and anti-government feeling (much of it of racial origin) for decades, and much, though not all, of the region is so far quite immune to President Obama's appeal.

Under the circumstances, we should not perhaps be surprised that things have moved so slowly. As I have already said many times and will undoubtedly have occasion to repeat again, northern abolitionists saw little to praise in the first year of Lincoln's Administration, and during 1862, many Republicans saw General McClellan--and not without reason--the same way that many liberal Democrats today see Secretary Geithner, that is, as a man with too much sympathy for the enemy. President Obama's handling of Afghanistan--still in progress as I write--suggests that he wants to base decisions upon real data. That encourages me to believe that he will look both for new measures and new men and women as things continue to get worse. But meanwhile, he also needs to put his own magic to work to change the way the country is thinking about its problems. He is not, in my opinion, making enough speeches or holding enough press conferences, particularly on domestic affairs. He has not put forth a New Deal, New Frontier or Great Society, thus giving his enemies too much power to define him. I believe that this crisis will still be continuing not just three, but eight years from now, but that gives him enough time to put the nation on a new path. Meanwhile, if anything is to be done anytime soon, the Democrats need his political magic to avoid serious losses next fall.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Echoes of Vietnam

As the Administration struggles over Afghanistan, the parallels with Vietnam multiply. Two relate the country itself: the third, to developments within Washington, D.C. None of them holds out much hope of avoiding another setback, albeit on a lesser scale.

In Afghanistan since 2001, as in Vietnam after 1954, we have put our trust in one local leader: Hamid Karzai now, and Ngo Dinh Diem then. Neither one has lived up to our expectations as a worthy, modernizing third-world leader, although Diem managed to put up a better front in those more innocent days. I was reminded of the comparison a week or two ago when the New York Times ran a long story about Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai. It revealed, first that brother Ahmed is almost universally believed to be deeply involved in the poppy trade, and secondly, that he has been on a regular retainer from the Central Intelligence Agency. A bell rang in my head.

Ngo Dinh Diem's right-hand man was his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, his "counselor," minister of the interior, and head of various security services. Nhu did not traffic in drugs, although he was widely rumored to consume them. His beautiful wife, Madame Nhu, had political ambitions, a very sharp tongue, and an unfortunate facility with the English language, which enabled her directly to address the American people with frequently disastrous results. Nhu thought of himself as an intellectual and promulgated a philosophy called personalism, which stressed the duties of Vietnamese citizens to the state. He despised all political opposition and within a few years of 1954 had become easily the most hated man in Vietnam. With rare but critical exceptions, most Americans in Vietnam regarded him as the regime's biggest liability. Elbridge Durbrow, Eisenhower's last Ambassador there, suggested bluntly to Diem that Nhu should be appointed an Ambassador elsewhere. Even Ed Lansdale, the Air Force General and one-time CIA operative who did so much to put Diem in power in 1954-5, thought Diem would be better off without him. What Americans never seemed to realize was that Nhu was far more critical to his President/brother than Robert F. Kennedy was to his. While Diem was trotting around the globe (and visiting the US) in 1954, making friends and influencing people, Nhu was setting up the Ngo family machine (which included two other brothers as well.) Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge renewed the demand for Nhu's departure in the fall of 1963, during the Buddhist crisis, but Diem told him it was "out of the question."

Nhu had patrons, however, within the CIA, which funded many of his operations. Two stattion chiefs, William Colby (from 1959 to 1962) and John Richardson (1962-3) met with Nhu once or twice a week, developing relationships at least as important as those between Diem and successive Ambassadors. Recognizing their importance, I in 1992, when I was beginning work on American Tragedy, asked the Agency to release the accounts of all the conversations between Colby and Richardson on the one hand and Nhu on the other. The Agency replied that their records could not be searched for those documents. Imagine my surprise, earlier this year, when I discovered that the CIA had published some internally commissioned histories of its role in Vietnam, including one, "The CIA and the Ngo family," which drew on almost every page upon the exact documents that I had requested. In a somewhat testy conversation with a CIA FOIA officer, I received the distinct impression that the Agency has constructed a separate database of its files for the sole purpose of responding to FOIA requests, and that it does not include anything that they are determined not to release.

Like Ngo Dinh Nhu, who was assassinated along with his brother on November 2, 1963, Ahmed Wali Karzai seems to be both a presumed US asset and a liability to his brother, another ineffective leader. The denouement of the Afghan presidential election debacle last month also recalls Vietnam. There, too, the United States insisted after Diem's overthrow in establishing a new constitution and, eventually in 1967, a presidential election designed to ratify the rule of General Nguyen van Thieu, who had supplanted another general, Nguyen Cao Ky, as the US favorite. The CIA provided get-out-the-vote money for Thieu, but his minions apparently were lax in distributing it, and in the election, Thieu won with an embarrassing plurality of only 38%. Second in a multi-candidate field was a peace candidate, Truong Dinh Dzu, whom Thieu managed to jail a few years later. The real parallel to the recent election, however, occurred four years later, when Thieu ran for re-election. Both Nguyen Cao Ky and Duong Van Minh, the Buddhist General who had led the coup against Diem, had hopes of defeating Thieu in a three-way race, and the North Vietnamese reportedly let Henry Kissinger know that a change of president would make it much easier to conclude a peace agreement. Thieu however found a legal stratagem to bar Ky from the race, and Big Minh, as he was known, realized that he had no chance in a two-man race and withdrew himself. According to recent reports, U.S. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker offered Minh $1 million to run in order to give the election some legitimacy, but he refused. None of this could have helped Thieu much in the struggle that really counted, the long-term battle against the Viet Cong.

Viewed from across the ocean, the election in Afghanistan seems to have turned out even worse. To begin with, the Taliban successfully prevented voters in large parts of the country from taking part. In addition, Karzai evidently defeated his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, with the help of massive vote fraud. An international inquiry resulted, and the Americans--replaying, in a sense, the role of Ellsworth Bunker--managed to insist upon holding the election again. But Abdullah Abdullah, arguing that the second election would be just as bad as the first, withdrew--for reasons about which we can as yet only speculate. Once again the United States retains the local leader it thinks it wants--but at an obvious cost in that leader's legitimacy which cannot bode well for his future.

The other parallel relates to those two externally very similar Presidents, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. Kennedy did not inherit an ongoing war in Southeast Asia, but he did, as I showed clearly in American Tragedy, inherit a policy. The Eisenhower Administration had committed the US to fight for either Laos or South Vietnam in internal policy statements, and Kennedy as a result faced a flurry of recommendations to intervene in both countries--supported by his entire senior foreign policy team--almost as soon as he came into office. I shall leave aside the details regrading Laos today, but here are some of the key facts about Vietnam.

On July 28, Secretary of State Rusk, in a White House meeting, suggested that the United States prepare for ground intervention in Laos, an air attack on North Vietnam in retaliation for Viet Cong activity in South Vietnam, and a troop intervention in South Vietnam, if necessary, to deal with the consequences. Kennedy made it clear that he had no intention of intervening in Laos and that he doubted the wisdom of the attack on Hanoi. A new series of meetings a month later, also focusing on plans for intervention in Laos, had the same result. But Deputy National Security Adviser Walt Rostow continued to beat the drum for military intervention during September, and in early October, the Joint Chiefs called for sending more than 20,000 men to South Vietnam right away. The State Department endorsed these plans on October 11. Kennedy replied by agreeing to send his special military representative, General Maxwell Taylor, to South Vietnam--along with Rostow--to look into the situation--and he himself revised Taylor's instructions to make it clear that he did not want the United States to take over military responsibility in South Vietnam. Nonetheless, Taylor returned with a recommendation for a small token force that could be expanded if necessary. This, however, was quickly overtaken by a new Pentagon recommendation for a larger intervention, eventually endorsed by Rusk, Secretary McNamara, and McGeorge Bundy. After more meetings, Kennedy on November 15 finally made clear in no uncertain terms that he did not intend to put American forces in Southeast Asia. Such a war, he said, would draw little or no allied support and would be most difficult to explain to the American people. After that meeting he apparently had a talk with McGeorge Bundy, his National Security Adviser, in which he complained that none of his team seemed to understand what he wanted in Southest Asia. Bundy responded with the suggestion of making Averell Harriman--who was bringing negotiations on Laos to a successful conclusion--the Assistant Secretary of State for the Far East, while moving Rostow out of the White House. Kennedy agreed.

Press reports suggest that President Obama has beene equally dissatisfied by the proposals his team--which does not seem to have questioned the fatal flaw in the Bush Administration strategy of trying to install client regimes in the Muslim world--has been giving him for Afghanistan. Unfortunately we live in a different world, and he, unlike Kennedy, has not managed to keep the argument a secret. Thanks to the McChrystal leak, we all know what the General wants now, while very little of the pressure on Kennedy leaked through during 1961. President Obama also seems to understand that nothing the US does is going to help very much if the Karzai government, which has now been in power almost as long as Diem was before he was overthrown, cannot improve. But whether he, like Kennedy, will overrule his team is unknown. Gary Wills in the current New York Review of Books says that many believe that Obama will be a one-term President if he withdraws from both Iraq and Afghanistan. I personally think the chances are at least as good that he will be a one-term President if he does not.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

The New Civil Conflict

[People are still arriving here because they have received an email on the current state of America. If you are curious about my own views of the origins and consequences of the current crisis in American life, I recommend this link. However, the email attributed to myself comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler, is a forgery which I did not write. All visitors may also be interested to read the following post. Meanwhile, here is the best explanation I've found of why that email is so incredibly popular.] For an afterword on the hoax, see the bottom of this post.

War, wrote Mao Zedong,is politics with bloodshed, and politics is war without bloodshed. He was right: the advances of our civilization have depended upon finding non-violent substitutes for violent conflict. I first began to understand this in the 1980s, when I was working intermittently on two different books, one on the case of Sacco and Vanzetti (a project I inherited from a dead friend), and the second on European conflict over several centuries, beginning in 1559. As I studied in detail how the lawyers on both sides of that famous murder case tried everything they could get away with to win (the prosecution, in particular, withheld a lot of exculpatory evidence that today they would have to reveal), I realized that contestants in the legal process would be content with no less, since they have, in effect, submitted to it rather than fight the dispute out by force of arms. Meanwhile, as I showed in Politics and War, Europe from 1559 through 1659 was inherently, continually unstable because the rich, rather than the poor, routinely took the law into their own hands and refused to submit to higher authority--a situation that began to change in the latter half the 17th century. The United States was the first modern nation based entirely upon written laws, and Lincoln in the Civil War argued that the real stake in the war was not slavery, but whether a free government could preserve itself against a violent internal threat. The answer was yes.

Today's struggles, like those of early modern Europe, deal with money, prestige, and even religious hatred. Moneyed interests, represented by our leading industries--finance and health care--are perhaps as powerful in Washington today as they were in the late nineteenth century. Today's battles, like those of the civil war, also involve sectional rivalry. Much of the South lives in a different mental universe that the Northeast and the Far West, as illustrated dramatically in a book I have begun reading, Confederates in the Attic, as well as by the behavior of Southern legislators in Congress or the Justice of the Peace who refused to grant a marriage license to a biracial couple. (He has since resigned.) This is the country that Barack Obama wants to take in a new direction. It is not clear how much of a success will be possible.

Thus, as a vote nears in the House of Representatives, today's papers report that Speaker Pelosi has given in to conservative Democrats who insist that neither the public option (which will not be an entitlement program but will be funded by premiums) or any private plan sold through a government-sponsored exchange will cover abortions, except in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the mother's life. (It will be interesting to see if that exemption survives.) That is a concession to very strong religious beliefs, which are prevailing against the law as declared (perhaps unwisely, as a I have noted) by the Supreme Court in 1973 and frequently reaffirmed since. Meanwhile, the New York Times reports, the Speaker has been attending fundraisers around the country in the company of some of the health care industry's leading lobbyists. For reasons which I do not understand, she has forbidden even a symbolic vote on the House floor on a single-payer plan. The whole process of designing the legislation, indeed, has largely been a matter of figuring out how much reform the insurance industry is willing to tolerate. Since we can save money only at their expense, this does not leave too much room for optimism about how much a new plan will do to ease the crisis in health care costs about which the President has said so much.

Some weeks ago I saw Michael Moore's new movie, Capitalism, A Love Story. It contained some wonderful footage and fascinating material, but I thought it was below his best work (including Sicko) because it was rather frenetic and, actually, contradictory. The movie began with a short love note to the 1950s, including a reference to 90% marginal tax rates, whose proceeds, Moore pointed out, went into schools, hospitals, and interstate highways (although they also went into nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.) But at the end he argued that capitalism needed to be given up and replaced with democracy, a view which I cannot share. Capitalism can be productive economically (although even that is once again in question now), and more important, it seems in the long run to reflect human nature far better than socialism. The best solution is to allow democracy to balance the excesses of capitalism, at which the United States was reasonably successful, I would argue, from the 1930s through the 1970s. The President and much of Congress would now like to restore that balance, but it is not at all clear that they can.

Franklin Roosevelt, to be sure, managed 75 years ago to implement changes far more sweeping than anything Obama is talking about, and in so doing saved democracy, not only in the United States, but ultimately in the rest of the industrialized world. But how did he manage it? Timing is everything, and Roosevelt, unlike Obama, did not reach the White House until our great economic crisis was three years old. Because of that, he initially enjoyed majorities of 318-117 in the House and 61-35 in the Senate--and even some Republicans, in those days, supported many of those reforms. Because the initial burst of New Deal legislation did something to relieve extreme distress, he actually increased those majorities in 1934 to 332-103 in the House and 71-26 in the Senate. (These figures include two left-wing Midwestern third parties, the Farmer-Labor party of Minnesota and the Wisconsin Progressives, in FDR's column.) Those majorities allowed him to pass the Wagner Act, assuring union rights, and Social Security. And in 1936, when he carried 46 of 48 states and won 523 out of 531 electoral votes, he increased them yet again, to 347 to 88 in the House and 79-17 in the Senate. Those majorities were torn about, sadly, by his plan to pack the Supreme Court, but they did allow for the passage of the first federal wages and hours legislation before a Republican reaction occurred in the elections of 1938, two years into another new recession. And ironically, those majorities possible because race, for the most part, was not yet an issue in national politics. Because white supremacy still ruled the south, most southern whites unhesitatingly voted for FDR, whose programs literally saved many of their lives (although they also did what they could, in many instances, to prevent New Deal benefits from reaching blacks.) Because white supremacy has now been overturned, while the Democratic Party has been unable to deliver real benefits for southern whites, they now vote monolithically Republican.

This story does not bode well for Barack Obama's attempts to transform America again. Not only did he begin with considerably smaller majorities than Roosevelt, but he entered office when the bottom of the current economic crisis was years away. Now, last week's elections suggest, Democrats will bear much of the voters' anger over the economy next fall, and increases in their majorities do not seem very likely. Much may happen before then. The President may call for, and the Republicans will undoubtedly try to reject, a second stimulus package, on the very Rooseveltian grounds that the first one simply hasn't done enough. But so far his Administration, reflecting his own personality (similar in this respect to Lincoln's), has striven for relatively moderate solutions to our problems. Like Lincoln, he may find himself forced by events to take a new approach.

My mood about the political scene swings a great deal lately, rather like that of fans watching an athletic contest or soldiers in a battle. That, I realize, is altogether natural, since we are in a struggle for the future of the nation, and the outcome is not guaranteed. And to paraphrase Clausewitz, results in politics, as in war, are never final. Should the current crisis end with another Gilded Age, the new Prophet generation--which could start to be born within as little as ten years--will undoubtedly grow up with a keen sense of its injustices and a determination to set things right. I shall not live to see what they can accomplish, but history tells me that we must accept any outcome within our own lifetimes as temporary, certain that the human drama of the struggle over all our futures will continue as long as the human race.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Conservatives discover generations

It's been a long time since I reviewed the basics of generational theory here, and most long-time readers must be familiar with it, but since I now have so many new ones every week, a quick summary may be in order to put this week's remarks in context.

The theory of William Strauss and Neil Howe, as I have mentioned, sees a period crisis in the life of the United States (and, I have concluded, of other nations as well) every 80 years or so (1774-1794, 1860-1872, 1929-45, 2008 - ?). Those crises are closely related to a generational rhythm that produces a new generation every twenty years. Each generation belongs to one of four archetypes, known as Prophets, Nomads, Heroes, and Artists. Each generation also has a specific name. The current generations are Boomers (Prophets, born 1943-60), Gen Xers (Nomads, born 1961-81), Millennials (Heroes, born 1982-2002?) and Homelanders (artists, who have been born for at least a few years now.) During the previous cycle the Hero generation were the GIs, now frequently known as the "Greatest" generation (born about 1904-24), and the Artist generation was the Silents, born 1925-42, many of whom are still active in public life and about whom I have written a great deal here.

Today's media and politics are dominated by Boomers and Xers--but the last election was dominated by Millennials, who voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama and provided his margin of victory. Millennials had a very different kind of upbringing than either Boomers, who were largely left to themselves within a very stable environment(as the children of the greatest country on earth, how could they go wrong?, and Xers, who had to deal with by far the highest percentage of broken homes and got the least attention from their elders of any living generation. The parents of Millennials--led by Boomers--gave them very structured lives in which they were expected to perform, in one way or another, at least 12 hours a day. They did, for the most part, perform, but they also expected, and received, rewards. My Millennial students at Williams would do anything I asked--but they got very angry when I tried to change the rules in the middle of the game. They were extremely capable, and they had a rather frightening trust in older generations.

Now as the last election showed, Millennials are the greatest threat to the right-wing ethos and policies that gained ascendancy in the United States between 1981 and 2008. What is rather fascinating is that leading conservatives seem to be figuring this out. Here is what Glen Beck, of all people, had to say about Millennials this week.

I do know that there was a story in The Wall Street Journal yesterday about trophy kids going to work. These are the kids that we've raised and we've told them, "Who's super special? You are." And we've never told them anything bad. Well, now they are starting to enter the workforce, and I love this. We're now having these, what do you call them, consultants to help new employers adjust to the employees. Consultants are coming in and saying, "Look, you've got to adjust the way -- because you've got new employees. " Now here's a Boston-based consultant doing the other, coaching a group of college students for job interviews. Who had a consultant for a job interview? Did anyone within the sound of my voice have a consultant that you hired to help you with job interviews? My gosh. Get over yourself. Go out and get a frickin' job. Consultant, what a bunch of pansy -- I'm sorry. I digress.

Anyway, she said to them, "How do you believe your employers are going to view you?" She even gave them a clue. She said, "The word I'm looking for begins with the letter E." One student raised his hand, said "Excellent." Another student rhymed in with "Enthusiastic, energetic." Not even close. Here was the correct answer. "Entitled." The students collectively responded, "What?" Some were surprised. Others were hurt that they would be viewed as people who think they're entitled.

Here's the problem with the Millennial generation, and this is the problem -- I'm telling you, I've said this for years. You want your -- go ahead. You want to be a helicopter parent, you save them for everything, do you know what some companies now have parent day? In the corporation where your parents can come? You bring your parent to work, that's the last day you are coming to my office. I mean if they want to have a sit-down with me. If they want to come by and see your office, that's cool. You want to have a sit-down? Get the hell out of my office. I think we need more people with this theory: Get the hell out of my office. Now, we're not going to be able to do that because soon the government will be able to protect everyone so you'll not be able to fire everyone. You can live more like they live in France where, I'm not kidding you, countries have whole sections of floors dedicated to people who just sit in an office and do nothing because the state won't let them fire them. You can't fire them. So they just, "You're moving down to 12. Well, have a good time." And people just go to work and they sit in their office and they do nothing! That's where we're headed. In the meantime, until the government tells me I can't do it anymore, get the hell out of my office. Don't you feel like that? Don't you want -- some guy who would come to you when he's applying for a job and he wants to work and the next thing he's like, "Well, I've got a consultant to help me." Well, I don't know about you, but you seem to be doing fine, but I'm not going to work like that. Get the hell away from me.

The Millennials that are coming in now, employers are beginning to realize that that is the future workforce and they want to shape the job towards their life rather than have their life adapt to the workplace. I mean, that's all well and good, but... get the hell out of my office. "Although members..." this is from the Wall Street Journal. "Although members from the other generation were considered somewhat spoiled in their youth, millennials feel an unusually strong sense of entitlement. Older adults criticize the high maintenance rookies for demanding too much too soon. They want to be CEOs tomorrow. More than 85% of hiring managers and human resources executives say they feel that Millennials have such a strong sense of entitlement than older workers according to a survey," blah, blah, blah. "The generation's greatest expectations, higher pay, 75%." "What? You're paying what?" "Yeah, that's what I'm paying. Get the hell out of my office." Flexible work schedule, 61%. Promotion within a year, 56%. More vacation and personal time -- oh, I've got a lot of personal time coming your way. Get the hell... can you finish the sentence? They really do seem to want everything, and I can't decide whether it's an inability or an unwillingness to make tradeoffs," says the assistant dean and MBA and admissions director at Stanford University. A study of 18 to 28-year-olds found that nearly half had moderate to high superiority beliefs about themselves. The superiority factor was measured by responses to statements such as, quote, "I deserve favors from others." How about this one? "I know that I have more natural talent than most." They don't want to work 40 hours a week. They happen to wear clothes that are comfortable. They want to spice you will the dull workday by listening to their iPods if they want to. And, "If corporate America doesn't like it, too bad for them." Really? Get the hell out of my office. We have a problem with arrogance in this country. This is what I was talking to you about a little bit yesterday. We have a real problem with arrogance and if you are a religious person, you know what happens whenever people become arrogant. "Oh, they're destroyed." We've got to reconnect with humility. We've got to reconnect with doing the right thing. We've got to reconnect with who we are. We're going to be forced soon to reconnect with what our grandparents taught us and how my generation and older, what they learned. No, you know what, I'm sorry. I can't say my generation and older. Because the generation right before me is so damn screwed up, I don't know what the hell they're doing. The people who were raised in the Sixties, you are the people responsible for what we're living in right now. You people have -- "Oh, I care about the planet. I care..." oh, shut up. You dope-smoking hippies, look what you have brought us now. And because you were in charge of the curriculum, everybody gets a trophy. You know what? There are losers in life. There are losers in life. The losers in life are the ones who don't really try very hard because everything is owed to them. The losers in life are the ones that expect a trophy even though they're in 18th place. The winners are the ones that try. Those are the winners. They may not always exceed but they try. When you couple arrogance with the Social Security problem, when you couple the idea of, "I know I have more natural talents than most, I deserve favors from others," when you couple that with "What about the old people? Are we going to take care of the older generation?" "No, they've done nothing but stand in my way the whole time." Who's going to get the medical care when Social Security really, when it comes down to it, Medicare, Medicaid, when it comes down to universal healthcare? When you're going to have to make a decision because we can't afford good healthcare for everybody, somebody's not going to get a kidney transplant. Somebody's not going to get heart surgery. Somebody's not going to get kidney dialysis. Somebody's not going to get that surgery. Who's it going to be? Is it going to be the Millennial that doesn't give a flying crap about anybody else but themselves because they're special, look at all the trophies they won? Or is it going to be the 80-year-old who's already lived past their time? I mean, look what they have done. You know the answer of that as well as I do.

Now like everything else Beck says, this is intentionally inflammatory, and one of its major implications--that Millennials haven't had to work for what they have-is ridiculous. I would estimate that today's kids spend at least ten times as much psychic energy on the problem of getting into college, for instance, as my generation did. But what is interesting is that Beck, in a way, knows what he's talking about, and is angry for a very good reason. These kids do not share his values and they are not going to. Beck believes in the free market--including the free market in hatred, his product--because it has made him rich and famous. Millennials won't believe in it unless it delivers for them, and they shouldn't. And like the last Hero generation, the GIs, they are going to pose a huge problem for our society in an age of economic decline. They will expect us to find jobs for them, and they have the votes to make sure that we do so. They will probably save a lot more of their money than Boomers and Xers have, and they will want to make sure to provide for their old age. In short, they are going to explode the conservative fantasy that the years 1933-80 were an aberration in American history that has now been consigned to the ash-heap of history.

I was reminded as soon as I read this of another conservative comment on a Hero generation. In 2004, at the height of the campaign, Grover Norquist talked a bit indiscreetly to a Spanish reporter about the GI generation. He didn't date it quite right, but his basic point--which I quoted here at the time--was correct.

Two million people who fought in World War II and lived through the Great Depression die every year. That generation has been an exception in US history, because it has defended anti-American policies. They voted for the creation of the welfare state and for obligatory military service. They are the Democratic base, and they are dying

And we've had four more years pass where the age cohort that is most Democratic and most pro-statist, are those people who turned 21 years of age between 1932 and 1952--Great Depression, New Deal, World War II--Social Security, the draft--all that stuff. That age cohort is now between the ages of 70 and 90 years old, and every year 2 million of them die. So 8 million people from that age cohort have passed away since the last election; that means, net, maybe 1 million Democrats have disappeared…
This is an age cohort [the GIs] that voted for a draft before the war started, and allowed the draft to continue for 25 years after the war was over. Their idea of the legitimate role of the state is radically different than anything previous generations knew, or subsequent generations. Before that generation, whenever you put a draft in, there were draft riots. After that generation, there were draft riots. This generation? No problem. Why not? Of course the government moves people around like pawns on a chessboard. One side spits off labor law, one side spits off Social Security. We will all work until we’re 65 and have the same pension. You know, some Bismarck, German thing, okay? Very un-American. Very unusual for America. The reaction to Great Depression, World War II, and so on: Centralization—not as much centralization as the rest of the world got, but much more than is usual in America. We’ve spent a lot of time dismantling some of that and moving away from that level of regimentation: getting rid of the draft. . .

Norquist knew what he was talking about. The death of retired GIs probably accounted for George Bush carrying Florida by over 100,000 votes in 2004 after losing it, barely, in 2000 (according to the most thorough recount.) The GIs had not been consistently Democratic: social issues had led them to vote for Nixon and then for Ronald Reagan. But they had been protected by the federal government all their lives, from child labor legislation through lower marginal tax rates beginning in 1964 to higher Social Security benefits, and they had lobbied effectively to keep things that way.

What Norquist didn't realize, apparently, was that new Millennials were being added faster than GIs were dying. And while they apparently will not have to undergo a draft that will put 20 million of them in uniform, they will expect our government to address their particular problems at every stage of their life. And if Barack Obama can persuade them (as I don't think he has yet) that he is addressing their problems, a new Democratic majority will indeed be reborn.

In Roosevelt's day the media was controlled by Missionaries (his own prophet generation, born 1863-1884 or so), and the Nomad Lost generation, born 1885-1903. Most of them hated him. Not until after the Second World War did GIs become the dominant voice in the media. That, too, is a parallel to the situation today. But well before that, they had become the dominant force in politics--as voters, not candidates. I do not know if Republicans in the 1930s attacked them, too, as spoiled brats who needed government hand-outs--but I strongly suspect that the answer is yes.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Human achievement?

For the past two weeks I have been reading most of Neil Sheehan's new book, A Fiery Peace in a Cold War. Sheehan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for securing the Pentagon papers from Daniel Ellsberg back in 1971, has now written two substantial works of recent history. The hero the the first, A Bright Shining Lie, was John Paul Vann, a fellow member of the Silent Generation, who saw the flaws in American strategy in Vietnam but could not give up the idea, after his reckless personal behavior had helped force him out of the Army, that we could win. The hero of this one is some one of whom I do not think I have ever been aware, Bernard Schriever, a German-American Air Force officer and engineer whom Sheehan regards as the founder of the American ICBM program. And although many of the events of this book took place during a time securely within my memory, they seem as remote, in many ways, as the days of Pearl Harbor and D-Day, Napoleon and Wellington, or the Thirty Years War. The book--even more than the one I am working on now on American entry into the Second World War--is about another America, one whose strengths and weaknesses become extraordinarily apparent as time goes on.

Researching my own book, I recently read a column by Drew Pearson and Robert Allen from August 1941, purporting to describe President Roosevelt's mood. The President, they said--and rightly so--was deeply engaged in preparing the nation for war, but he was less jovial than in the past. During his first eight years he had put people to work, helped build bridges and dams, and established the beginnings of the American safety net. Now circumstances forced him to tend to the construction of warships, bombers and tanks instead. That choice had been forced upon the United States by political crises in Europe and East Asia but it was not a happy one. Pearson and Allen did not know that FDR was about to make an even more fateful choice: the decision to launch the Manhattan Project, which culminated, four months after his death, in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Roosevelt had looked forward to a postwar world of peace and prosperity. Secretary of War Stimson, along with some (but clearly not all) of the scientists who had built the weapon, understood the need to bring it under international control. Meanwhile, in one of my favorite, little-known documents, some senior military officials in Washington had presciently sketched out the military situation that they expected the United States to face when the war was over. Without knowing about the atomic bomb, they anticipated a stalemate. . "After the defeat of Japan," they wrote, "the United States and Russia will be the strongest military powers in the world. . . .the relative strength and geographic positions of these two powers are such as to preclude the military defeat of one of these powers by the other, even if that power were allied with the British Empire." That in my opinion was a sound judgment both before and after the development of atomic weapons and could have provided the basis for a sensible postwar foreign policy. Unfortunately, that was not to be.

As I had occasion to discuss in an article published a couple of years ago in a collection, the first war plans formulated for a conflict against the Soviet Union, beginning in 1947, did not foresee a stalemate: they planned on an atomic strategic bombing offensive against the Soviet Union that would lead to its complete defeat. This remained our plan throughout the 1950s, even though at the outset we surely lacked, and indeed may never have attained, the capability to bring it about. Much of the responsibility surely lies with the Air Force, which secured its independent status in 1947 based upon the largely mistaken idea that strategic bombing had won the Second World War and could therefore win the wars of the future. Without ICBMS--or, until the very late 1950s, intercontinental bombers--the need to plan for such a war vastly distorted our whole foreign policy. To cite just one example, it probably led to our long, painful, and currently troubling alliance with Pakistan, simply because that nation provided bases that would allow medium-range bombers to reach targets in the Soviet Union. All the while, the Soviets--who never believed in long-range strategic bombing--were steadily improving their air defenses, which, when tried on American planes in Vietnam, turned out to be formidable indeed. The guiding spirit of the Air Force, first as chief of the Strategic Air Command and later as Chief of Staff, was Curtis LeMay, one of the villains of Sheehan's book, who not only counted upon strategic bombing to wipe out the Soviet Union (and refused to recognize that bombers might be obsolete), but also thought that it could solve other problems, like Castro's regime in Cuba or the Vietnam War, if only the Air Force were let alone to do the job.

Sheehan thinks the ICBM was the key weapon of the Cold War and his book is about the men who pushed for it and developed it. The two main heroes are Schriever, an immigrant from Germany who actually built and tested the first (though not the most useful) missiles, and John von Neumann, the Hungarian-born mathematician and refugee who made major contributions to mathematical theory, high-speed computing, and nuclear physics. Like so many Americans during that period, von Neumann viewed the Soviet Union as essentially similar to Nazi Germany--that is, bent upon world domination--and thought that it was necessary for the United States not only to deploy but to use decisive weaponry against it. He made the ICBM program happen because he predicted early in the 1950s that a sufficiently small hydrogen warhead could be developed to be delivered by a missile into the heart of the Soviet Union. That prediction proved true.

The bulk of Sheehan's book is a story of engineers at work, making this happen, while outwitting bureaucratic rivals like LeMay (who feared missiles as a threat to his beloved bomber force), circumventing the budgetary strictures upon which President Eisenhower tried to insist (with a big boost from the Sputnik launch), and overcoming one technical problem after another. Watching them solve these enormous challenges, I could not help but wonder what similar advances had taken place during the last thirty years or so. Sadly, no non-defense project has ever had so much government money and so much engineering talent focused upon it as has sophisticated weaponry. The comparable advances in recent decades, I suppose, have been in the field of computer science, transforming the use of information in ways whose consequences we cannot yet predict. Diagnostic health care has made major advances but there have been relatively few big breakthroughs in treatment or prevention like the vaccines and new drugs of the first half of the century. And we have had no comparable effort in fields like clean energy or mass transit, even though we are talking about such things now. Unfortunately the United States has changed from a country of engineers and industrialists to a country of lawyers and financial analysts; younger, hungrier countries like China and India, as well as the defeated nations of the Second World War, may be the source of the next great breakthroughs. Our private economy, certainly, has not been able to generate a demand for engineering talent, or capital to put it to work, comparable to that which was mobilized for the Second World War and the Cold War, except in the field of computer science and information technology.

And meanwhile, was the great achievement of Schriever and company worth it? Was it as valuable as Sheehan claims? As soon as the Soviet Union detonated an atomic bomb in 1949 the United States government decided that it had to develop the H-bomb as well, and from there it was only a small step to von Neumann's conclusion that we needed the means to deliver a huge number of those weapons onto Soviet cities, one against which the Soviets could not defend. One dissenter was George F. Kennan, who argued very provocatively in one of his most brilliant and least-known internal papers that before doing so, the United States should make another effort to ban atomic and nuclear weapons. The reason, he argued, was that such weapons were so purely destructive that they could never serve the positive foreign policy goals of the United States. "By and large," he wrote, "the conventional weapons of warfare have admitted and recognized the possibility of surrender and submission. For that reason, they have traditionally been designed to spare the unarmed and helpless non-combatant. . .as well as the combatant prepared to lay down his arms. This general quality of the conventional weapons of warfare implied a still more profound and vital recognition: namely that warfare should be a means to an end other than warfare, an end connected with the beliefs and the feelings and the attitudes of people, an end marked by submission to a new political will and perhaps to a new regime of life, but an end which at least did not negate the principle of life itself.
"The weapons of mass destruction do not have this quality. . . .They cannot really be reconciled with a political purpose directed to shaping, rather than destroying, the lives of the adversary. They fail to take account of the ultimate responsibility of men for one another, and even for each other’s errors and mistakes." (Readers with a free hour can read Kennan's entire argument here. I do not think they will feel they have wasted their time.)

But Kennan was overruled. So, a few years later, was General Matthew Ridgway, then Chief of Staff, when he suggested at an NSC meeting that the execution of our war plan against the Soviet Union could not possibly serve the interests of the United States. In reply, President Eisenhower himself "said he was speaking very frankly to the Council in expressing his absolute conviction that in view of the development of the new weapons of mass destruction, with the terrible significance which these involved, everything in any future war with the Soviet bloc would have to be subordinated to winning that war. This was the one thing which must constantly be borne in mind, and there was little else with respect to war objectives that needed to worry anyone very much." The work on ICBMs and other delivery systems not only went ahead, it proceeded so rapidly that by the time the first SIOP, or nuclear targeting plan, was completed by the end of the Eisenhower Administration, there were far more available warheads than targets, leading to the multiple targeting of nearly every one.

The Soviet Union, Sheehan stresses, also had an ICBM program, and gave the arms race something of a push when it launched the first earth satellite. It was however far behind ours, as it turned out, and took many years to catch up quantitatively. (What I have read in recent years suggests that it never caught up qualitatively.) In fact, the two missiles whose development takes up most of the book--the Atlas and Titan--were cumbersome, liquid-fueled vehicles of dubious military utility. It was the Minuteman, to which he devotes much less space, that became the backbone of the US deterrent. Meanwhile, before the deployment of ICBMs, our desperate desire to deploy missiles within range of our enemy led to the placing of intermediate-range missiles in Britain, in Italy, and in Turkey. And that in 1962 led the world to the brink of nuclear war when Khrushchev sent intermediate range nuclear missiles to Cuba, as well as tactical nuclear weapons. Faced with that situation, the American military and much of the American political establishment wanted an immediate invasion of Cuba. That, we now know, would have led to the detonation at least of tactical Soviet nuclear weapons (including one that would have incinerated the Guantanamo naval base), and therefore, almost surely, to a general nuclear exchange. The only reason that it did not, as Sheehan acknowledges, was that John F. Kennedy did what Kennan had hoped some one would do, and took responsibility for Khrushchev's mistake and his predecessors, first by giving Khrushchev a chance to back down and secondly by promising secretly to withdraw the missiles from Turkey and Italy.

Perhaps the American reaction to the events of 1939-49 (from the outbreak of war in Europe until the Soviet nuclear explosion) was perfectly natural. Certainly there is no undoing it now, and no denying that we emerged from the Cold War intact. Yet one of the most poignant moments in Sheehan's book was a reference to Albert Einstein, who by 1950, according to Sheehan, deeply regretted having written the 1939 letter to Franklin Roosevelt that got the Manhattan Project going, because it had now led to a nuclear arms race. "Politics," Einstein once said, "is much harder than physics," and so it proved over the next few decades. We can take comfort now that we are no longer constantly prepared to unleash thousands of nuclear warheads upon an opponent just as ready to do the same. To have reached that point was not an achievement of which the human race can be proud. The task of unleashing human creativity for more beneficial aims, and of finding a civic purpose as compelling as, but less destructive than, war, still remains.

[Regarding the hoax email circulating under my name, I have fantasized for months that some big-time conservative talk-show host woudl call me about it, since they love Obama-Hitler comparisons. (One small town host did call, but my courage failed me, and I immediately disowned it instead of waiting until she had me on the air.) Well, that hasn't happened, but something similar did. Someone posted a supposed excerpt from a hoax undergraduate thesis by Barack Obama on a blog, and conservative writer Michael Ledeen picked it up as real. Rush Limbaugh got it from him and ran with it on Friday. When Rush's researchers rather tardily found out the truth, he said--you'll never guess--that it didn't matter, because we all know Obama believes these things anyway. See for the full story.