Archive for the ‘Cold War’ Category

Book reviews: A hawk, a dove and the missile man of America

January 23, 2010

Two books on the Cold War

1. The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War – Nicholas Thompson

In this book, Nicholas Thompson provides a fascinating account of the life, times and work of probably the two most important American diplomats of the Cold War. George Kennan and Paul Nitze were starkly opposite in many respects, yet both provided immensely important direction to American geopolitics through their advice to many Presidents and shaped the Cold War more than any other two American policy makers.

Of the two Kennan is the more famous and is regarded by many as the most important American diplomat of the twentieth century (he passed away in 2005 at the ripe age of 101 and was known for the resplendent prose in his many books which I could strongly recommend). Kennan is mainly known for a famous 1946 telegram that he sent from the Soviet Union. At this time Americans were still trying to understand the looming Soviet menace and Kennan was probably the most knowledgeable Soviet expert in the country. He rightly understood Stalin’s bluster and sent a telegram describing the intentions and nature of the Soviet state. The telegram instantly catapulted him to recognition and set in place the official policy of “containment” which Kennan’s name became synonymous with. In the telegram Kennan indicated that the Soviets would respond to only strength and not reconciliation and weakness. In his book on the hydrogen bomb, Richard Rhodes says that it was this telegram along with Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech and Stalin’s rousing speech in Moscow that inaugurated the Cold War.

However Kennan did not advocate necessarily employing military strength. This was advocated by Paul Nitze, a man who may not be as famous as Kennan but who was no less important. Nitze is regarded by many as the “father of threat inflation”. As a measure of his influence as a hawk, it suffices to realize that many of the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration were either Nitze acolytes or acolytes of Nitze’s proteges. Just like Kennan Nitze also became famous for a secret 1950 document called NSC-68 that advocated the use of preemptive force against the Soviets and exaggerated their military might. This was a pattern that Nitze and his growing band of followers (among them in various ways were Albert Wohlstetter, Richard Pipes, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld) would consistently pursue; whenever they thought that liberals were trying to be too reconciliatory toward the Soviet Union, they would prepare documents and advocate polices exaggerating Soviet military potential and intentions. Their policies frequently worked and became especially influential during the Reagan administration (formerly they did a good job of portraying Carter as being weak on the Soviets). To some extent they were responsible for the dangerous arms race between the two nations.

Needless to say, such hawkish views radically differed from those of Kennan the dove whose more measured opinions fell somewhat out of favor in later years. Yet the book does an outstanding job of showing that the agendas of both men were more subtle and complicated. Occasionally when it was necessary Nitze would take a softer approach, and during the later Reagan years he joined the President in pressing for open disarmament and reconciliation when many of his followers continued to take a hard line. In his later life Nitze mellowed down, and in 1999 went so far as to write a New York Times op-ed recommending unilateral nuclear disarmament for the US. Although Nitze rightly perceived the work that he had done to be very important in dictating Cold War policy, it is tragic that unlike him, others did not have the sense to see the shortcomings and detrimental effects of these policies in a post Cold War world (Nitze and the accompanying rise of the neo-cons are very well-documented in J. Peter Scoblic’s
“Us vs Them: How a Half-Century of Conservatism Has Undermined America’s Security”).

With such differing perspectives one would think that Nitze and Kennan would have been mortal enemies. But remarkably, through several decades of acute differences and disagreements, the two men remained close personal friends. As Thompson who is Nitze’s grandson shows, it is a mark of the character of both men that they managed to rise above their political differences no matter how severe these were. Thompson shows in this highly readable volume, the tremendous impact on US foreign policy that the work of Nitze and Kennan had. He bring both of them to life and sensitively and wisely dissects their personalities, thoughts and lives. Very strongly recommended for foreign policy/Cold War enthusiasts.

2. A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon- Neil Sheehan

Neil Sheehan apparently spent 15 years writing this account of a little known Air Force General, Bernard Schriever, and the time he spent on the man shows in this comprehensive account. He has performed a very valuable service in bringing this rather obscure character to life and driving home the importance of his accomplishments. Schriever was one of the individuals most responsible for jump starting the US’s missile program, especially shepherding the development of the ICBM. Sheehan does a great job bringing to life all the characters that Schriever was associated with, from his mentors in flight school (including General “Hap” Arnold) to his bete noir, the notorious Curtis LeMay, to his contact with brilliant scientists John von Neumann and Edward Teller whose contributions were critical for America’s missile and atomic bomb programs.

Sheehan provides ample background and little known tidbits of Schriever’s life and times. For instance I was not aware that the US Air Force was a rather inefficient backwater organization till the mid-1930s, easily outclassed by its European counterparts. Apparently at one point, pilots were asked to deliver the mail in the wake of a post office scandal. Their inexperience in flying and the loss of life that resulted galvanized FDR and others to issue directives for a modern Air Force that would become among the best in the world.

The main problem I have is that while Sheehan’s digressions (for instance on the atomic bomb project and Soviet espionage) are fascinating and reflect the most up-to-date information, they are too many and too frequent. An editor who could have shaved off a few pages and encouraged a tighter narrative would have definitely helped. The digressions draw your attention from direct information about General Schriever. To be fair the book is not supposed to be just about him, but a little less meandering would have been a boon.

In spite of this deficiency, the book will be fascinating for Cold War enthusiasts who want to know about the development of the US Air Force and its atomic and missile arsenals during the early Cold War. There is also a fair amount of technical detail about missiles explained in relatively plain and accurate language. After JFK came to power Schriever’s influence waned and the latter part of the book is not as interesting. Nevertheless, Sheehan has done a valuable and outstanding job in bringing a little known individual to life and telling us about his enormous contributions during a critical period of American history.

Space: The Violent Frontier?

March 9, 2008

A couple of days ago, the US sent up a missile to blow up a “rogue” satellite. China had also done the same thing a year or so ago. These actions seem like ominous preludes to a possible arms race in space, the last thing the world wants.

In the latest issue of Pragati, Adityanjee has an article that exhorts India to develop its own ASAT (anti-satellite) system in response to these actions by the US and China. While developing such a system might be good insurance and a future bargaining chip, the first and most important thing we all need to do is keeping pushing for an international treaty to ban weapons in space. Not only will a failure to do this lead to a possible new Cold War, but it can also render space inhospitable for peaceful technologies, an event that will be disastrous for countries that currently use satellites for weather forecasting and precipitation for example.

Mike Moore, who is a previous editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, has written a new book on the history and current status of attempts by the US to weaponise and militarise space. As in many other cases, the US- no friend of treaties for quite some time now- is unique in having vetoed and blocked attempts to forge international treaties to ban weapons in space. This is probably not too surprising considering the attempts by the US since the 19060s (when they were developing a purported system to oust Chinese ballistic missiles) to the 1980s (age of the infamous Star Wars) to the 2000s (the Bush administration’s obsession with National Missile Defense). True to other traditions, the US has constantly underscored its sovereign right to exceptionalism when the rest of the world thinks otherwise. The US satellite blowup comes close on the heels of renewed efforts of China and Russia to push for an international treaty to ban space weapons.

In his book, Moore documents how President Eisenhower made spirited efforts to stop an arms race in space. However, every administration since the Reagan administration has vetoed attempts by other space-faring countries to negotiate such treaties. The Pentagon’s love affair with GPS-guided precision weapons in the 90s fueled ambitions to weaponise space. Again, it’s the US that is leading the world into a dangerous era and is interested in unilaterally pursuing belligerent aims. It seems to be still living in Cold War mode. As Moore says, China and Russia (and presumably India) have many more important problems to tackle and spend money on than building a space weapons capability. However, they can, and will, build this capability if they see the US constantly trying to do so.

The US in fact has a golden opportunity right now to preserve its superiority in weapons technology. The situation reminds me of the early days of the arms race, when an exceptional opportunity to preserve the US superiority over Russia in nuclear arms was lost because of politicking by right wing hawks and threat inflation specialists. After that, Russia soon caught up and it was too late. Similarly, now is the time for the US to talk to other nations and sign a space-weapons ban, thus preserving and possibly sealing its current technological advantage.

One of the central points of missile defense that I have often made in other posts, is that it is almost assuredly going to fail against ballistic missiles, a point which should have been emphasized in the Pragati article. This points needs to be constantly emphasized because like some annoying virus, it keeps infecting and enamoring the minds of US and world officials in every successive administration, in spite of its proven lack of feasibility. Shooting down ballistic missiles realistically has always been a pipe dream harboured by zealous government officials, and the fallibility of this has been demonstrated time and time again by distinguished scientists and other officials. Any attempt to build an anti-ballistic missile system is a huge waste of money, time and talent, and as an added insidious side-effect, it breeds hostility in other nations, something that has already happened because of the US National Missile Defense system. Missile defense should rankle the hearts of democracy and peace-lovers, libertarians and economic conservatives.

Shooting down satellites is another matter, and unfortunately easier than shooting down ballistic missiles. But as Moore points out in his book, one of the many effects of such an exchange will be an amplification of debris in low-earth orbit, debris that will likely make it impossible to use satellites for peaceful purposes, including missions to other planets in the solar system. And of course, it will add perhaps irreversibly to the hubris-laden image that the US has in the world right now.

Every attempt should be made by all space-faring countries to push for an international treaty banning any kind of weapons in space. But sadly, it’s the US again that is posing the biggest impediment to the forging of such a consensus. The next President should make it a priority to sign such a treaty, and Obama has indicated that he might be interested. Any attempt by the US to develop a space weapons capability will lead to a dangerous arms race with Russia, China, India and others, involving huge expenditures and wasted efforts. It will contribute to an already deeply dividing feeling of international resentment and animosity. But perhaps most importantly, it will send out a signal that space, that ultimate refuge that is supposed to be the equal sovereign right of every human being on the planet, can be belligerently conquered and manipulated by a few nations. After that, everything will be up for grabs.

How rational thinking led to insanity

October 25, 2007

Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race
By Richard Rhodes
Alfred A. Knopf, 2007

Richard Rhodes is perhaps the foremost nuclear historian of our time. His past two books (among many others on extremely varied subjects) on the making of the atomic and hydrogen bombs are landmark historical studies. But as readers of those books would know, they were much more than nuclear histories. They were riveting epic chronicles of war and peace, science and politics in the twentieth century and human nature. In both books, Rhodes discussed in detail other issues, such as the Soviet bomb effort and Soviet espionage in the US.

In this book which can be considered the third installment in his nuclear histories (a fourth and final one is also due), Rhodes takes a step further and covers the arms race from the 1950s onwards. He essentially proceeds where he left off, and discusses the maddening arms buildups of the 60s, 70s and 80s. One of the questions our future generations are going to ask is; why do we have such a monstrous legacy of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, enough to destroy the earth many times over? The answer cannot be deterrence because much fewer would have sufficed for that. How did we inherit this evil of our times?

Much of the book is devoted to answering this question, and the answer is complex. It involves a combination of paranoia generated by ignorance of what the other side was doing, but more importantly threat inflation engendered by hawks in government who used the Soviet threat as a political selling point in part to further their own aims and careers. It is also depressing to realise how in the 50s, when the Soviet atomic bomb programs were still relatively in their beginning stage and the US had already amassed an impressive fleet of weapons, opportunity was lost forever for negotiating peace and preventing the future nuclear arms debacle that we now are stuck with. Rhodes details a very interesting and disconcerting fact; every US president since Truman wanted to avoid nuclear war and was uncomfortable about nuclear weapons, yet every one of them had no qualms about increasing defense spending and encouraging the development of new and more powerful weapons. It was as if a perpetual motion wheel had been set in motion, oiled by paranoia and deep mistrust, not to mention the clever manipulation of ambitious Cold Warriors. In the 50s, hawks like Edward Teller influenced policy and exggerated the threat posed by the Soviets, when in fact Stalin never wanted any kind of war with the US.

Later, this role was taken up by people such as Paul Nitze who admittedly was the “father of threat inflation”. His job and that of others was to exploit the uncertainty and fear and turn it into a potent force for justifying the arms race. Into the 60s and 70s, Nitze gathered around him a cohort of like-minded people who included today’s neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld. They wrote reports that tried to argue against detente, and advocated further and more powerful arms buildups. In the middle of this politicking, it seems a wonder that presidents could negotiate treaties such as the anti-ballistic missile treaty and the NPT. Reading accounts of these people and their clever spin-doctoring and manipulation of the threat, one cannot help but feel a sense of deja vu, since it’s largely the same people who inflated the threat of WMDs in the Bush administration, as well as much else. What can we say but that public memory is unfortunately short-lived. Reading Rhodes’s accounts gives us a glimpse of the birth of today’s neocons, who have wrought so much destruction and led the country down the wrong path. Rhodes deftly recounts the workings of key officials in both governments, and how they influenced policy and reacted to that of the other side. He also has concurrent accounts of economic and military developments in the Soviet Union, and how channeling of funds towards defense spending created major problems for the country’s growth and development.

However, the major focus of Rhodes’s book concerns the two principal characters of the endgame of the Cold War and their lives and times; Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Rhodes paints a sensitive and insightful portrait of Gorbachev, as a man who was a reformist since the very beginning when he was a minister of agriculture. Rising to high positions from humble and trying beginnings, Gorbachev realised early on the looming menace of the arms race and its impact on his country’s development. He tried sensibly to negotiate with Reagan’s administration to cut back on nuclear arms. He could be compassionate and sympathetic, but also a very good politician. Rhodes’s portrait of Reagan is less favourable, and Reagan appears to be a complex man who harbored complex and sometimes puzzling ambitions. On one hand, he was a man who wanted to abolish nuclear weapons and end the threat of nuclear war. On the other hand, he was a naive idealist who sometimes thought of himself in messianic terms, thinking that God had a special role for him in the Cold War. Rhodes rightly compares some of Reagan’s thinking to religious thinking. Reagan quite bizarrely encouraged tremendous defense spending (more than the earlier three presidents combined) and massive and dangerous weapons developments and military exercises. Rhodes’s account of the NATO military exercise named Able Archer in 1983 which almost spurred the Soviets to ready a nuclear strike speaks volumes about Reagan’s belligerent policies, particularly strange given his “other side”, which eschewed nuclear conflict. An intelligent but not particularly intellectually sophisticated president, Reagan liked to hear about policy more in the form of stories than reports, and because of his relatively poor and unsophisticated background in issues of national security had to depend on his advisors for insight into these issues.

These advisors, especially Richard Perle and others, persuaded Reagan to stall negotiations with the Soviets, whose main insistence was that that he give up his dreams of SDI or “Star Wars”, a costly space-based weapons system that was clearly going to engender more animosity and arms buildups. This system was not just threatening and unnecessary, but would not have even been technically effective. Again, one cannot help but think of the Bush administration’s flawed insistence on missile defense systems. Reagan refused to back down on this central point in negotiations with the Soviets in Geneva and Iceland, mainly advised by Perle and others. Egged on by false hopes of security through SDI, he squandered important opportunities for arms reduction. In the pantheon of presidents trying to reduce Cold War nuclear threats and curtail weapons development, Reagan is surely the biggest offender. However, it is also not fair to blame him completely; clearly his hawkish advisors played a key role in policy making, even while his more moderate advisors struggled to find a way out of the madness. Ronald Reagan was a complex character, and a comment by Gorbachev, if perhaps a little too critical, accurately captures his personality; Gorbachev once said that he would love Reagan as a dacha neighbor, but not as president of the US.

In the end, it was largely inevitability that ended the Cold War. In this context, Rhodes also dispels some myths about it. One of them, cleverly used by conservatives these days, is that it was Reagan who was the principal instrument in ending the Cold War. Rhodes makes it clear that it was Gorbachev who was instrumental. Allied with this myth is another one, that the US drove the Soviet Union into the ground essentially by bankrupting them, as if that somehow almost points to a clever strategic decision by Reagan to increase his own arms spending to induce the Soviets to increase theirs. But this myth is also not true. The Soviet Union carried the seeds of its downfall inside itself since the beginning, and the fruits of those seeds were beginning to show since the 1970s. Gorbachev recognised this, and it was largely the economic situation in his country and his own actions and realisation of the inevitability of affairs that ended the Cold War. Reagan in fact may have slightly prolonged the Cold War, and he certainly made it more dangerous towards the end with his idealistic visions of more security through wondrous weapons building. He also made negotiations much more difficult by constantly casting Soviet-US relations under the rubric of good and evil, piety and godlessness, and by smooth talking rhetoric and debate. Robert McNamara has said that our immense nuclear legacy arose from actions, every one of which seemed rational at the time, but which ultimately led to an insane result. Ronald Reagan is perhaps the epitome of a US president who had his own remarkable but largely flawed internal rational logic for justifying enormous nuclear arms accumulation.

Throughout the book, Rhodes’s trademark style shines through; meticulous research that envelops the reader, remarkable attention to detail and internal logic, a novelist’s sense of character development and the retelling of key events,- such as his gripping account at the beginning of the book of the Chernobyl tragedy that exposed many of the Soviet Union’s weaknesses and contradictions- cautious and yet revealing speculation, and narration that instills in the reader a rousing sense of history and human nature. He gives sometimes minute-by-minute accounts of the deliberations and meetings between Reagan and Gorbachev. As in his other books, he liberally sprinkles all accounts with extended quotes and conversations between key participants, thus giving the reader a sense of being present at key moments in history. I have to say that this book, while very good, is not as engaging as his first two books, but it nonetheless is solid history and storytelling, and a chronicle of one of the important periods of the century, a period that influences the world to this day.