The War State: The Cold War Origins Of The Military-Industrial Complex And The Power Elite, 1945-1963, by Michael Swanson
Not too long ago, a deluge of hysteria surrounded President Trump amid his threat to declare a national emergency in order to secure funding for a border wall. Alas, those simpler times of alleged fascism have come and gone and a new hyper hysteria has reared its head via the global outbreak of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. All bets are off now with executive orders and emergency declarations being handed out almost daily, the most egregious of these being the invoking of the Defense Production Act to force a private company into manufacturing ventilators or the deployment of Federal troops to quell riots in Portland. This is far closer to fascism than any other previous actions, cloaked in the usual propaganda of being out of absolute necessity for the preservation of the “good of the people.” If nothing else, perhaps these executive actions might have many questioning the powers vested in the Executive Office, but the use of emergency declarations based on dubious claims of necessity and fear is nothing new.
It has been de rigueur for presidents to establish new executive powers under the guise of national security for well over a century. Many point the finger at an out of control executive branch, surely this is the most visible and relatable, Orange Man Bad and all, but more correctly, it should be pointed at the continuous government, an unaccountable beast lying just under the surface. Although it operates behind the scenes, it typically manifests itself most visually through the ugly business of war. This continuous government of war, or more simply put, the War State, is enabled to exist through an unelected bureaucracy which stays firmly in place from administration to administration and is the apotheosis of government colluding with businesses and cartelizing markets.
Although the rise of the War State enabled a massive expansion of the executive branch, in one of those strange quirks of history, it would also be its downfall. Inevitably, the War State consumed and all but eliminated any true powers of the President. Enter the vapid figurehead as Leader, who offers nothing more than slogans and empty promises that have no bearing on the actual day to day operations of the continuous government. Despite this, many still manage to hang on to every vacuous phrase and will argue vehemently for their guy to take back the reins and straighten things out for the better.
In The War State, author Michael Swanson addresses an ever expanding question, a wormhole that opens up many avenues for investigation and exploration. That question, simple as it may be, is this: given that, “the federal government gave birth to large military budgets and mass income taxes at the same time and both live on together today as twin siblings of the war state, does this big-money spending lead to corruption?” (p.15)
To find out, Swanson takes the reader on a whirlwind journey, one where expert opinion molders attempted to convince big business and the American public to align with government and to foster a confident belief in its ability to execute any plan, if only given the necessary funding (voluntary or otherwise), time and requisite secrecy. With a belly full of propaganda, the masses were willing to believe in the War State’s necessity and indeed, became willing participants in the process of embedding the very bureaucracy that would forever exclude them from any preconceived notion of participation in the democratic process that they held so dearly. Bloated budgets became the norm and black operations became business as usual and all the while well connected businessmen lined their pockets without risk.
The War State thrives in times of fear and paranoia and to speak out against it is tantamount to treason, for this must mean that you are anti-American and that you want Americans to lose their manufacturing jobs or even worse, lose their life fighting for your freedoms! The War State is a deep-seated entity well over one hundred years in the making and at the most basic level, it is a crony capitalist venture, fascist at its core, with the average citizen being merely a pawn on the global chessboard. The War State is deeply embedded in the American psyche and there is no easy way out. The multifarious ill effects of its existence will be ever reverberating for centuries to come. But fear not! There is a silver lining: the War State enabled a situation that gave rise, as it were, to the miniskirt. Hooray?
The Pretense of Knowledge and Belief In Necessity
The state, despite its claim of being for the people, exists solely to feed itself and to obtain more power. It works the same under any form of government, be it communism or representative democracy. Both will feed the population with lies to prop up the belief in its necessity. Indeed, the common view held by the U.S. population is that the War State was an entity that grew out of necessity to handle a threat, one that could only be handled by an omnipotent military-security apparatus to plan, direct, and navigate an increasingly complex world of international geopolitical tensions.
Swanson casts aside this narrative in lieu of an interpretation focusing on the alliance with, and cartelization of, big business, manufacturing, government and perhaps most importantly, the opinion-molding military experts, who have ushered in an era of American exceptionalism, where destabilization and regime change has become the norm, inherently making the world less safe for the democracy that they proclaim to be tantamount to all other objectives. These so-called experts were able to convince not only an entire generation of independent minded civilians of the necessity of the War State’s existence, but they were able to convince a majority of supposedly infallible top government officials of its necessity as well. This alliance of business and government was a natural progression of the cartelization that became common throughout the Progressive Era, most explicitly evidenced by the railroad, petroleum, iron and steel, and sugar industries. And lest we forget, the granddaddy of all monopolies, the government education system, as emphasized by historian Thaddeus Russell on this recent podcast.
As with all things history, where does one start? Although the book’s subtitle indicates the Cold War origins of the Military-Industrial Complex, I contend that there are origins to be explored going back to the turn of the century in order to analyze some of the societal conditions that paved the way for a deference to authority that the War State required. Beginning in the Progressive Era and extending into the interwar period, a foundation was laid by a puritanical group of people who professed to have the ability to organize society in a manner far better than if people were left to their own devices; a self-proclaimed pretense of knowledge.
According to the standard narrative, the Progressive Era is broadly defined thusly: it was a period of widespread social activism and political reform across the United States that spanned the 1890s to the 1920s. The main objectives of the Progressive movement were addressing problems caused by industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and political corruption. Seems harmless enough, right? But more specifically, this was a movement of the intelligent class, who were educated at elite universities and who took it upon themselves to be the moral guardians guiding the unassimilated immigrants as to how they should think and act, and encouraging them to cast aside their individualistic predilections and assimilate into the greater culture. It is true enough that the Progressive Movement was a response to the massive flood of immigrants to the U.S. during the 1880s to the 1920’s, wherein the population roughly doubled with Irish, Jewish, Italian, Slavic and German immigrants (among others) arriving on the shores. Naturally, they all brought with them their extended families and their individual cultures.
The Progressives sought to change this via a process of assimilation and this is a foundational moment for the War State (more on this in a bit). A fusillade of approaches was used to enforce and achieve the Progressive worldview; the proper view. This can be evidenced most noticeably through the myriad settlement houses, as defined by historian Thaddeus Russell on this podcast, that were created to teach the immigrants how to speak English, how to work in a factory (for the men), how to be a housewife (for the women), how to dress properly and generally taught them the good and proper customs that were required to be a part of society, by their Progressive standards, of course. Beyond these literal assimilation factories, other means to achieve their goals included the war on opiates (a precursor of the modern drug war), the elimination of religious schools in lieu of secular English speaking government schools and the lobbying for, and enactment of, alcohol prohibition laws enforced by government guns.
What does this all have to do with the War State?
For any ruling entity, it is of necessity to prevent the citizenry from being individualistic. It is of necessity to modify the habits of the immigrants from the old world such that they abandon their cultural roots and fall in line with the rest of good society. A ruling entity needs a common identity to enforce an us-versus-them mentality. It needs to eliminate the mind that would rather think of sex or jazz. It needs to glorify going to work every day and to not be drunk all the time. It is of necessity to have a good and productive, yet docile citizenry, for a distracted and wandering mind does not bode well in a factory, and a factory, naturally, needs dedicated workers to build weapons of war. That is the importance of the Progressive Era. That is the cultural foundation of the War State.
On top of all the moral postulating and cultural genociding of the Progressive Era, there was a massive layer of government propaganda urging the masses to support a war that they largely opposed. Indeed, a song from 1915 titled, “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier,” was wildly popular among isolationists, socialists, pacifists, many Protestant ministers, German Americans and Irish Americans. The song begins as follows:
Ten million soldiers to the war have gone, Who may never return again.
Ten million mothers’ hearts must break, For the ones who died in vain.
Head bowed down in sorrowin’ her lonely years, I heard a mother murmur thro’ her tears:
I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier…
This type of sentiment, of course, did not sit well with the ruling class. Interventionists and militarists like former President Theodore Roosevelt beat the drums for war preparedness and although President Woodrow Wilson ran on a platform of, “He Kept us Out of War,” once he was re-elected he didn’t hesitate to send the boys off to slaughter. And what of the song? In responding to the song’s popularity, Roosevelt indicated that he was not a fan and he suggested that the place for women who opposed war was, “in China—or by preference in a harem—and not in the United States.” If you don’t fall in line with our worldview, then you must be excommunicated and forced to live a horrible life against your will. Nice guy.
Although the concept of government propaganda was not new, with the advent of the moving picture, radio shows and the influence of increasingly consolidating news services, the conditions were ripe for a pro-government media barrage, delivered in unison and with an air of authority in order to sway the masses to support government programs and ultimately, war. This trio of media, coupled with the government propaganda machine, made up another sinister aspect of the Progressive Era: the monopoly of information. Indeed, a willing extension of the government propaganda machine in the World War I era were some, but certainly not all, Hollywood stars who were eager to not only produce moving pictures in support of the war effort, but charismatically stood in front of their fellow citizens and promoted the buying of war bonds, as did Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford.
To gather some additional context on this monopoly of information and how it was deployed upon the masses in the United States, one must first take a slight detour to the other side of the pond. In Britain, throughout World War I, a massive propaganda campaign was employed to bolster public support for a largely unpopular war. Back then, the British propaganda machine constructed outlandish stories that were so brazenly false, that many grew weary of the propaganda, especially in the interwar period. As recounted in this Guardian article, “Britons discovered that there was no substance to most of the more lurid atrocity stories—about crucified soldiers, raped nuns, dismembered babies and notoriously, about the German factory [that rendered] corpses into fat.” The parallels to modern day claims of WMD’s (Weapons of Mass Destruction) or Iraqi soldiers tossing incubator babies to the ground are striking. Patently false in retrospect, they were effective in the short term to achieve their propagandistic goals.
In the run up to World War II, the U.S. government, in realizing the follies of the outlandish British propaganda machine during World War I, had to be a little more tactful so as to alleviate any doubtful public scrutiny. Trust was established through the creation of numerous new agencies and programs throughout the Great Depression. These programs included infrastructure projects, but also cultural projects including art, music, and writing. These programs served to solidify a faith in government taking care of the people (with an underlying intent of assimilation to promote a common culture) and by far, one of the most effective projects was President Roosevelt’s intimate radio broadcast fireside chats. Of course, this was not unique to the U.S., for a similar thing was occurring in Germany, as conveyed in the aforementioned Guardian article, “Hitler communicated with hypnotic directness through the new media of radio and cinema. Hitler could never have won widespread support if he had not been able to exploit the multiple miseries of the Depression. After 1929, Germans were receptive to his assertion that their sufferings were the evil fruits of the rotten Weimar system.” Sound familiar? Economic depression? Evil people out to get you? Government will save you.
While the U.S. population was distracted and riding high throughout the Roaring Twenties, the monopoly of information services were hard at work burying and downplaying the atrocities occurring in the Soviet Union. As conveyed in this Reason article, in reference to two terrible occurrences of this era, “One is Stalin’s deliberate infliction of a famine on the peasants of the Ukraine that killed between four million and seven million of them. The other is how Western journalists, particularly those of The New York Times, deliberately covered up the mass murder.” Indeed, as conveyed in this article regarding the Times’ covering up of atrocities, “Stalin suborned western journalists such as Walter Duranty, who famously wrote of the Ukraine famine in The New York Times: ‘There is no actual starvation, but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.’” Well, the Times reported it, I guess we’re in the clear!
And if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s more. Not content with merely burying stories of famine, the Times downplayed the existence of the horrific political show trials in the Soviet Union and conveyed them as a fair process back in the U.S. These show trials forced many false confessions under threat of imprisonment or death, based on the most flimsy or falsified evidence or even coerced testimony by relatives or friends. These show trials were used by Stalin to purge any dissenters and allowed him to gain absolute control of the government. Seems like a good thing to support?
Perhaps the interwar era is summed up best by this passage in the previously referenced Guardian article regarding propaganda measures, “Where it did not convince, it confused. It muddied the wells of knowledge and polluted the sources of understanding. It sanctioned the suspension of belief and disbelief. Propaganda helped to make the 1930s an age of obfuscation, of darkness at noon.” Given this situation, who will save you? Who could sort all of this out? With the myriad monopoly of information entities and progressive elites eschewing morality and alleged knowledge, what chance could one have? Consider too, that many newly landed immigrants from Germany, Ireland and countless other locations, were tacitly forced into broadly supporting the wars and other pro-government measures, lest they give the existing U.S. population any additional fodder with which to persecute them based solely on their country of origin (for more on that, see this article on the plight of the Volga Germans). The stage was set for the War State to inherit from its inception the societal framework of deference to political authority.
Funding Big Business – the Buildup
Although the book’s subtitle indicates a timeframe of 1945-1963 for the Cold War origins of the War State, the author takes us on a brief analysis of the relationship between the state and taxes going back to the World War I era. It is critical to the War State’s existence for it to have a continuous flow of funds. This was lacking in the era prior to World War II, where only the wealthiest individuals and corporations paid any income tax. Indeed in 1939, 93% of workers were not compelled to pay federal income tax. World War I had largely been financed through the sale of war bonds to the public, but the sheer magnitude of the cost of World War II proved this method of financing to be insufficient. Government sought to rectify this situation and “by 1943, the government started to deduct money out of people’s paychecks…[and by] the last year of the war, personal income tax receipts surpassed corporate income tax as the largest source of revenue…the size and power of the government grew as its revenue growth exploded by a factor of 8.8 from 1939 to 1945.” (p.14)
Taking the lead from President Woodrow Wilson during World War I, which saw an explosion in the number of new executive programs, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) ran with that concept and further expanded all aspects of government. This is to say nothing of his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, who was no stranger to government spending, despite the textbook claims that he was a, “strict supporter of laissez-faire economics [who] believed the government should never interfere in the economy,” as debunked by historian Tom Woods in the book 33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask (p. 180).
In reading the standard history books, FDR is typically described as an enemy of business. While stumping on the campaign trail, FDR often attacked businessmen who were popular scapegoats in the post-depression era. This business bashing continued into the first few years of his presidency, but incentives matter, so how does one convince businesses to co-mingle with government after berating them year after year? The answer for FDR was to create a cartel and guarantee profits for select businesses. Swanson recounts this process as such:
“…before the war started there weren’t a bunch of large plants owned by big companies just sitting around and waiting for orders. Big war production was a new thing and the federal government itself often paid for and built the factories used in the defense industry and then gave them to the companies for free once the war ended. Of the twenty-six billion dollars spent during the war to build plants, seventeen billion was financed by the government. Taxpayer money financed the growth of the private defense industry.” (p. 18)
You’re welcome? Simply put, the concept was to build factories through coercive taxation, hand them over to businessmen and eliminate competitive bidding for government contracts, effectively removing the moral hazard of risk taking that a normal business would typically incur. Indeed, Swanson states that, “all of a contractor’s working capital is provided for by the federal government and payments are often made well in advance…this makes for a form of corporate socialism in which all risks are placed on the shoulders of taxpayers while profits are given to privately owned and well-connected corporations.” (p.20)
To be sure, from a broad conceptual level, there was nothing new about the government awarding money to defense contractors, but the difference was that prior to World War II, the government accepted competitive bids from numerous companies and typically awarded the contract to the lowest bidder. After the creation of the War Production Board, “within a few months 74 percent of the contracts were simply awarded after negotiation and not through competitive bidding.” (p.18)
Who would want to give up that kind of a business relationship? The War Production Board was all encompassing and fascist at its core as, “the board had the power not only to decide on the allocation of war contracts but also to prohibit production that it deemed unessential to the war effort…It even regulated the amount of fabric that could be used to make clothes, one effect of this being that women’s skirts had to be made shorter.” (p.17) Perhaps it was all worth it, eh?
Of course, there have always been entangled alliances between government and business and one can look to the U.S. in the 1830s for an example, where obtaining corporate status involved getting a specific grant from the state legislature. This would in turn confer upon an entity an artificial person status that would grant limited liability and other legal benefits, as described in this article by historian Anthony Comenga, in discussing the locofocos and the Free Soilers movements. This process unquestionably opened the door for corruption between business and government. The War State would build on this precedent and day by day, it’s power and influence would continue to grow.
Feeding the People and Sending Them Off to Slaughter
Once big business found itself sucked into government dependence, the everyday people just trying to put food on the table would follow suit with little complaint. If there is no job other than a government job, what choice does one have? Speaking of government dependence, the parallels to our current situation of dealing with the economic fallout of the government imposed shutdowns are staggering. Stories abound with respect to the masses of people calling for the government to take over businesses if they choose to accept bailout funds and the calls for the government to “put the people to work,” are never far away given the 40 million people (changing daily) filing for unemployment on account of the shutdowns.
The concept of putting the people to work has its roots in the Depression Era and two of the most commonly referenced programs are the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Public Works Administration (PWA), which were established in the 1930s under FDR. In classic government fashion, the similarity of the acronyms is confusing and the two are often interchanged in normal conversation. Although there are some definite overlaps, they are separate and distinct entities. The WPA was set up to provide jobs and income to the unemployed and unskilled citizens during the Great Depression, a seemingly benevolent government program of more or less local, community projects set up for the betterment of society.
These projects included broad categories of infrastructure projects, recreational projects, government buildings and health and safety uses for the greater community (roads, bridges, municipal buildings, schools, parks, water supply and sewage treatment facilities, etc.). Another aspect of the WPA was more culturally focused (albeit a culture that government deemed appropriate) and was implemented through five different sub-categories including the Federal Art Project, Music Project, Theatre Project, Writers’ Project, and Historical Records Survey. These five categories fell under the ominous title of Federal Project Number One, in which the government provided direct funding support instead of providing grants to private institutions.
A majority of the population is familiar with the work of the WPA with respect to the construction of public works projects, but it is lesser known that some of the work included the construction of military related projects. This is where the overlap begins with the WPA and the PWA. It’s important to emphasize again that the WPA was a direct government payment process; the worker was paid directly by the government. The PWA, on the other hand, awarded contracts to private companies, who in turn hired workers and completed the work (with the oversight of the government, of course). Although military bases were the primary expenditure, perhaps more visually impactful were monumental architecture projects in major cities, all seemingly orchestrated and guided by a charismatic president, boldly leading the way to prosperity. This imagery has been firmly ingrained into the psyche of the American populace.
Coming off the heels of U.S. involvement in World War I, the U.S. populace was largely anti-war and if, according to government rhetoric, the country was ostensibly opposed to fascism and willing to send young men off to die to fight against it, how could one institute a fascist takeover of industry and implement a massive military build-up in one’s own country to take on fascist dictators half a world away in World War II? The answer was to let these projects be seen as a private process, where one’s paycheck comes from a private company who is building for the good of the country! Nothing untoward happening here, citizen! Hitler understood this and he infamously stated that, “the great strength of a totalitarian state is that it forces those who fear it to imitate it.”
It’s no stretch to argue that civil liberties are lost during wartime and it’s a rather odd statement to say that one must limit civil liberties to protect civil liberties, yet that is exactly what happens during a total war scenario. As conveyed by Dan Carlin in a recent episode of Hardcore History (20:00 min mark), scientist Alex Comfort echoed this sentiment, during a debate with George Orwell when he stated that, “if Hitler wins, then political fascism is victorious; if any country wants to defeat fascism, they must assimilate as much of it’s philosophy as one can.” As such, Hitler was set to win either way. Try out that line of argument at your next dinner party, that ought to ruffle some feathers. Indeed, Hilter and Mussolini marveled at FDR’s fascist programs and the book Three New Deals provides wonderful context for this process.
Although it is tempting to go down the conspiracy rabbit hole and expound on a nefarious globalist entity that was planning, via top secret meetings, to expand military installations through crony capitalists ventures and get the people to pay for it, it wasn’t all that hidden. In fact, many publications were issued in support of the endeavors. Documents such as America Builds and Millions for Defense laid it out as plain as day. These plans included government funding that would inherently work their way into every nook and cranny of the economy. Also, this necessarily expanded a regulatory state which would verify proper usage of the funding, but more importantly it gave a pretext for citizens to turn on each other for alleged violations of government imposed mandates. Citizens turning against each other for alleged state violations was a regular occurrence in Stalinist Russia or Mao’s China, but similar occurrences have happened throughout U.S. history.
One specific example occurred during the 1930s amid the programs and regulations established under the National Recovery Act (NRA). Established under FDR, the alleged goal was to “eliminate cutthroat competition” by aligning business and government to set price controls and establish fair labor practices. Chief among these fair practices were minimum wages, maximum hours, and establishing minimum prices for which goods could be sold. Although participation in the NRA was, in theory, voluntary, many business owners felt the pressure to “do their part” and institute the central control policies with respect to their business operations. Those who chose to participate were encouraged to display the NRA Blue Eagle emblem on their storefronts. An alleged symbol of pride, it was often used against businesses who chose to skirt the established regulations, as citizens were encouraged to report violations. History rhymes, sometimes, as we are well into the COVID era of turning in mask ordinance violators or businesses who stay open beyond government dictated hours of operation. Beyond turning in businesses who violated NRA regulations, many good society folks flat out avoided or boycotted businesses who chose to not participate in the NRA programs. This essentially made participation in the programs mandatory in order for businesses to have a chance at survival in the inter-war era.
Alas, all good things come to an end, right? In 1935, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the NRA laws were unconstitutional. Huzzah! The NRA quickly ceased operations, but many of its labor provisions quietly reappeared via the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) passed later that year, a long term result being the growth and power of unions and government for the foreseeable future.
Most speak of the World War II era as a time when the greatest generation went off to fight in a great battle between good and evil. “Our boys” went overseas to fight against a leviathan entity that was attempting to dominate and control the world in it’s own image. Many went off to war confident that they were fighting to eliminate dictators and ensure the sovereignty of free people the world over. Little did they know, they were laying the groundwork for conflicts abroad that are still being dealt with today. It sounds simple: topple a dictator, draw new boundaries, install a new “democratic” leader and the people will greet us with flowers! The reality is that what fills the void is chaos owing to the fact that the installed leader is typically an adversary to the natural order and is beholden to the almighty U.S. government. The population becomes dissatisfied and revolts, which conveniently provides the pretext for continued intervention.
Back home, however, what had spawned was the framework of a continuous government apparatus, a hidden dictator completely devoid of any influence by a largely good-intentioned and anti-interventionist American populace. Indeed, in the book Hirohito’s War, as relayed by Dan Carlin on Hardcore History Episode 63 (1:04:00), “a poll conducted one month after war had broken out…as quoted by Francis Pike, ‘95% of the U.S. population wanted to stay out of war.’”
Under the veil of security, the continuous government embedded itself into every aspect of American life such that its elimination, or even talk of its elimination, would be met with such fierce debate and faux outrage that none dared question its existence. Once established, the bureaucracy and all knowing central planning of the state would take it from there.
Author Michael Swanson described it thusly:
“World War II gave birth to today’s military-industrial complex. Yes, the United States had mobilized to fight in several major wars in its prior history, such as the Civil War and World War I, but after all of them, the country reduced its military industry to nothing. With President Truman’s approval of NSC-68, a permanent war industry became established in the country. With each passing year, its influence grew. By the end of Eisenhower’s presidency, it became the most powerful special interest group in the nation, with powerful tentacles reaching into the economy, the defense bureaucracies, and dozens of congressmen. It transformed the federal government of the United States into a war state. President Kennedy would discover how entrenched and dangerous it had become.” (p194)
NSC-68, Propaganda, and Bureacracy
Written by and presented to President Harry Truman in 1950 by the Department of State and Department of Defense, NSC-68 was a top secret National Security Council (NSC) policy paper that described the threats and challenges facing the United States in cataclysmic terms that involved the destruction of not only the republic, but the whole of humanity as well, if certain government and military interventions were not implemented. For many Americans, the existence of the Constitution guarantees a means to reign in overreaching executive actions and maintains the checks and balances that keep wayward government entities from running wild with power. Once NSC-68 was put in place under a veil of secrecy, this unseen mechanism would determine courses of action outside any modicum of authorization or pretense of representation.
Far beyond mere planning, it enabled unelected experts to dictate to military leaders and the general population what was best for their security and well being. Edward Bernays foresaw this in his book Propaganda, where he argued that, “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.” (p. 129) Indeed, there is no truer example of this than NSC-68, which was implemented outside any formal review or referendum by the people. In The War State, author Michael Swanson described the process thusly:
“Without any explanation to the American people, the United States made the move from a policy of containment to one of global empire during the Truman administration. This decision was codified in NSC-68, which claimed that no nation on the planet could be neutral in the bipolar, East-versus-West world. Therefore, NSC-68 saw part of the world in the hands of the Soviet Union and Communism and the rest of it under the leadership of the United States. This was a policy of empire, because it meant that any nation that tried to maintain an independent line from that of the United States but was not under the control of the Soviet Union became a target for CIA operations, ranging from propaganda activities and the bribery of officials to ‘covert’ wars.” (p. 392)
New Enemies, Real and Imagined
One might expect that after World War II peacetime would resume and military expenditures would be drastically cut given the defeat of the evil enemy, but alas, a new boogeyman was created to fill the void. The great adversary to come out of World War II targeted by NSC-68 was the Soviet Union, who was portrayed as a grave threat to the U.S. and for democracy writ-large.
Having suffered tremendous casualties during World War II and with an economy stretched beyond thin, claiming that the Soviet Union was the greatest threat to the U.S. would be a tenuous argument for the public to believe, but a veritable tsunami of propaganda was about to broadside the unsuspecting populace, who were well trained in deference to government omniscience. This deluge of propaganda promulgated a culture of fear, which became the norm for the foreseeable future. The message was clear: the only entity that could protect anyone from the unseen evildoers in a faraway land, was a massive military-security apparatus.
Swanson described it thusly:
“Thanks to exaggerations in news stories and pure propaganda, Americans lived in the 1950s in a state of terror over nuclear war when the Soviet Union didn’t even have the capability to launch a missile that was able to reach the United States until the 1960s. Nor did it have a viable bomber force. In the 1950s, Air Force General Curtis LeMay said he had the ability to order SAC [Strategic Air Command] bombers to attack the Soviet Union and destroy all of its war-making capabilities ‘without losing a man to their defenses.’ Americans were completely safe, but they lived in constant fear.” (p. 394)
The propaganda easily worked on the average citizen, but it also influenced government and military officials’ decisions to build military installations all across the U.S. under the guise of absolute necessity. A prime example of this is the now abandoned Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex, in Nekoma, North Dakota, which encompasses 470 acres and contains 46 underground missile silos in addition to a massive concrete pyramid. Construction on the project began in the 1960s and was not complete until 1975. The discs on the side of the pyramid were state-of-the-art radar technology that, in theory, could be used to detect multiple incoming missiles simultaneously without having to maneuver a more traditional large mesh dish. It was purported to be able to provide a six minute warning and the missiles could hit a target within thirty seconds. The construction of this gargantuan building and surrounding military complex exceeded six billion dollars, but the facility was only active and in operation for three days (for more on the Nekoma facility, see this article). Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
Mind you, this was one facility in a veritable sea of military construction expenditures for the United States. Of course, massive military expenditures were not unique to the U.S. in this era, for enormous nation states naturally tend to expand and will come up with any excuse to necessitate construction of ever larger military bases in the name of security. To wit, the Soviet Union was no stranger to this desire as can be evidenced by this long abandoned air base for the 126th Fighter Aviation Regiment, located on the edge of the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, a full 2,700 miles from Moscow. Both the Nekoma facility and the Gobi Desert air base were recently covered on separate episodes of the Science Channel show “Mysteries of the Abandoned” and the imagery is striking, but any criticism of the War State is eerily left out of the discussion, leaving the only mystery being how the war time propaganda is still in full force, some sixty years after their construction and subsequent abandonment.
Perhaps one of the best takeaways of the book is the realization that such a small percentage of opinion molders were able to convince the bureaucracy and the average citizen that there was an imminent Soviet threat that could only be addressed by a massive military apparatus. Swanson provides some context regarding the standard assumptions with respect to Soviet military capabilities of the era:
“The Soviet Union, however, was not as powerful as the American politicians, reporters, and national security bureaucrats linked to the military-industrial complex claimed it was. NSC-68, written and approved as the guiding national security document for the United States in 1950, argued that if the country did not vastly increase its defense spending, then in just a few years Russia would be on track to produce enough conventional and nuclear weapons that they would be able to completely run over Western Europe and defeat the United States in an atomic attack. During the Eisenhower administration, politicians, such Senator Henry Jackson of Washington, linked to Boeing and other defense contractors, claimed that the Soviet Union had produced so many bombers that a ‘bomber gap’ existed, while the Gaither Report [a committee tasked by President Eisenhower] claimed that by 1960 Khrushchev would have the ability to launch a first-strike missile launch that would cripple the ability of the United States to retaliate. Such claims helped complete the transformation of the United States into a permanent war state by the end of the 1950s, but none of them were even close to reality.” (p. 264)
Continuing on, Swanson clarifies for the reader that:
“Yes, in 1955, the Soviet Union had plenty of nuclear bombs and was more than capable of exploding them in tests, but it had no way to deliver any of them as a weapon against an American city. The American B-52 bomber could fly 7,343 miles when refueled, which was far enough to reach the Soviet Union, but the Russia M-4, called the Bison bomber by NATO, couldn’t reach the United States, because its designers couldn’t figure out an easy way to refuel it in the air. The M-4 could only fly five thousand miles, which was too short for it to reach either coast of the United States from the closest point of the Soviet Union.” (p. 265)
As with all things in communism, the illusion was better than the reality, but the War State couldn’t fool the people by itself, it needed help. With only three major TV networks and a handful of newspapers of record providing the news coverage, the rigged game continued with the full participation of the press. An astonishing example of this was that although the Soviets only had four M-4 bombers, “when the Russians put on a major air show, they took the four bombers and had them fly around in wide circles to give the impression that there were dozens of them. Khrushchev was pleased when American newspapers reported on a supposed ‘bomber gap’ thanks to the Bison bomber. They saw what they wanted to see.” (p. 265)
So much for all that fourth estate, junior high textbook definition of the media keeping a watchful eye on the government. Indeed, the in-depth recounting of the true capabilities of the Soviet military is one of the great takeaways from the book. This was all hidden from the American public and the myth of the necessity of a massive military buildup in order to deal with an embellished threat took hold and continues today. Swanson dismantles this mythology:
“In reality, the Soviet rocket program was pitiful. The R-7 could barely function as a viable weapon. It weighed three hundred tons and operated on liquid oxygen fuel. That made it so that when the rockets were fueled up they were in danger of exploding. American missiles used solid fuel, which enabled them to be launched on about ten minutes’ notice. The Russians, though, couldn’t keep their missiles fueled up all of the time. That meant it took them hours to prepare them for launch, making them very vulnerable to attack.” (p. 266)
Of course, the standard objection is, ‘but how were we to know?’ It turns out, it didn’t matter, the agenda was already set, facts be damned! This is an all too familiar occurrence within the standard operating procedure for government. Look over there! A threat! We must act immediately! For example, take the infamous declaration of President George W. Bush when he said that, “we have to abandon free market principles to save the free market system” or, “we must pass the bill to see what is in the bill,” as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi declared in 2010. Perhaps more to the point would be the Afghanistan Papers, where U.S. officials and their media lapdogs willingly misled the American people regarding progress, or lack thereof, in Afghanistan.
In the end, when the reality of the situation is brought to light, those “looking out for the people” newsmen, after years of willingly misleading the public, will downplay the situation under the well worn guise of, they were just following orders, doing their best, how could they have known, etc. It’s just another random side note in a never ending war that the general public will have easily forgotten when the next faux crisis emerges. Just remember to stand and pledge allegiance, otherwise everyone will get all fired up. Invade and occupy a county on false pretenses for eighteen years and kill thousands upon thousands? Meh. The War State prefers that you are at odds with your fellow man, since it inherently requires a distracted populace.
Although it was kept secret from the general population, the CIA and the government knew about the pitiful state of Soviet military capabilities, as Swanson recounts to the reader that “…after twelve failed launches, the CIA put into space its first spy satellite code-named Corona. It passed over Russia and found that their few intercontinental missiles were all at one launch facility, which made them vulnerable to a surprise attack. They also now had 200 bombers with questionable ability to reach the United States and seventy-eight missiles on about a dozen submarines that spent almost all of their time in port. The United States had more than an overwhelming nuclear strike advantage over the Soviet Union. Yes, there was a missile gap, but it was in favor of the United States.” (p. 296) The threat was fabricated; a blatant and outright falsification of data and if it could be done in this scenario, it could be easily done elsewhere. The stage was set for the CIA to run wild.
The CIA and Less Than Powerful Pieces of Paper
The implausibility of being able to centrally plan an entire economy made up of 327 million individual actors is akin to the implausibility of trying to reign in the War State. The mythological telling of an infallible system of checks and balances is laughable and any alleged constitutional limitations or constraints are most easily dispensed with. Rank and file bureaucrats, military leaders and most certainly the presidents are given plausible deniability and benefit of the doubt far beyond what any average civilian would receive during even the most routine investigation of the most basic crime.
When a black ops adventure goes awry, the president can and will deny giving authorization for that particular overreach and the military can and will claim that they thought the original authorization gave them the authority to proceed. It’s a win-win for both entities, for how can you question the heat of the moment decisions that a soldier made? He is just doing the best he can! This has been and continues to be the status quo when it comes to covert operations. Swanson explains it it in this passage:
“In theory, the CIA does not engage in any covert activity without the approval of the president and the oversight of Congress. In reality, there is so little oversight over agency activities that often the leaders of the agency itself do not know everything that is going on. The president often approves one covert operation only to have it spawn even more operations that no one at the top is responsible for. How can this be? As Clark Clifford, who served as an aide to Harry Truman and as secretary of defense for Lyndon Johnson explained, ‘on a number of occasions a plan for covert action has been presented to the NSC and authority requested for the CIA to proceed from point A to point B. The authority will be given and the action will be launched. When point B is reached, the persons in charge feel that it is necessary to go to point C and they assume that the original authorization gives them such a right. From point C, they go to D, and possibly E, and even further.’ This led to some bizarre results, and, when investigation is started, the excuse blandly presented was that the authority was obtained from the NSC before the project was launched.” (p. 100)
Lest one think that that is all in the past and that the U.S. has learned from its mistakes over the years, just this May, as recounted on this Antiwar.com article by Thomas Knapp, “a group of around 60 mercenaries attempted an amphibious landing at Macuto, on Venezuela’s Caribbean coast. They were quickly defeated and 13 of them—including two Americans, Airan Berry and Luke Denman—[were] captured.” Predictably, President Donald Trump has denied any association with, knowledge of, or involvement in the affair on the part of the U.S. government. Indeed, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The Constitution is unable to prevent or guard against these situations, yet isn’t that what everyone has been trained to say: the soldiers are over there defending our freedoms, our way of life, our Constitution? The CIA operates in an extra-constitutional manner everyday. Some may say that it’s just the fog of war and we should just get over it, but Swanson has an answer for that too, because it isn’t just CIA operatives taking the operation to an unauthorized level, it’s a systematic process of looting the American public:
“The agency funneled ten million dollars out of the Marshall Plan and laundered it through various bank accounts of American Italians, who in turn ‘donated’ the funds to CIA front organizations and the Christian Democratic political party in Italy as charitable tax deductions.” (p. 117)
It seems a little complicated, but this procedure had several justifications:
“…it enabled the individuals who agreed to assist the CIA to do so without violating United States tax laws and it gave the CIA an internal audit procedure to provide a check on the flow and amount of money.” (p. 117)
This is just one declassified example, there are no doubt countless other operations buried in classified archives. If it was all on the up and up, one would expect for it to have happened out in the open, under the watchful eye of Congress, but it remained a secret until well after the Cold War ended. Untraceable cash, who wouldn’t want that?
Author Michael Swanson isn’t the only one to observe this, as Tim Weiner stated in his book Legacy of Ashes: the History of the CIA:
“It was a global money-laundering scheme that stayed secret until well after the cold war ended. Where the plan flourished in Europe and in Asia, so would American spies. ‘We’d look the other way and give them a little help,’ said Colonel R. Allen Griffin, who ran the Marshall Plan’s Far East division…Secret funds were the heart of secret operations. The CIA now had an unfailing source of untraceable cash.” (p. 32)
Now let’s take a step back and think of George Floyd, murdered in the street for trying to pass a counterfeit note, or Eric Garner, murdered on the sidewalk for selling loose cigarettes. When the average citizen is purported to have committed a crime, the police descend, swarm, and pounce. There is no law so trivial that, if broken, one could die at the hands of the police, but when the government commits a similar crime on an exponentially greater scale? It’s no big deal; it’s business as usual.
Swanson recounts a myriad of CIA black operations the world over and specifically reminds us of the countless operations in South America, an all but forgotten era for a population overwhelmed with, and raised on, continued and never ending wars in the Middle East. Just like the CIA adventures in South America, the current Middle East adventures will be but a mere blip on the sordid historical map of U.S. interventions. There is no sphere of influence in which the War State will not participate and regardless of the outcomes of continued misadventures the funding is continually expanded regardless of the rhetoric of the parity in power.
The Permanent Government
The permanent government might seem to be a misnomer to the lay reader. Of course, one might proclaim, we need a permanent government! We should be permanently governed, for without government there would be chaos! This sentiment is odd indeed, given the daily news cycle confirming that we are surrounded by chaos. I can hear the common argument that without government, problem ‘A’ would exist, so easily forgetting that that problem already exists in the current government controlled paradigm.
One can see the permanent continuous government in action with President Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria, do you remember that? It wasn’t that long ago, but critics across the political spectrum were quick to come out of the woodwork to lambast the President on this decision. It is when you are getting attacked from all sides that you know you are getting to the heart of the matter. We are only a few months removed from this situation and many have already forgotten the hysteria surrounding the decision after being quickly guided to the coronavirus hysteria and non-stop coverage of rioting in the wake of the murder of George Flyod by the knee of a Minneaplis police officer. The United States is still killing people in the Middle East, in Africa and countless other countries the world over; the war machine rolls on even in the midst of a global pandemic and racial unrest.
In conclusion, I’ll leave you with a stunning admission from an unlikely source, a person whose job it was to advance and enable the War State and the State writ large in the name of American Exceptionalism, court historian, Arthur Schlesigner, Jr:
“The permanent government soon developed its own cozy alliances with committees of Congress, its own ties to the press, its own national constituencies. It began to exude the feeling that Presidents come and go but it went on forever. The permanent government was, as such politically neutral; its essential commitment was to doing things as they had been done before…” inevitably, this surrendered, “presidential government to the permanent government.“ (p. 245)
Onward to the next war. Given the current circumstances surrounding police power and government regulatory overreach in the Covid Era in the United States, perhaps a new chapter needs to be written: The War State Comes Home.