Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Appendix II Segment 2/4
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With such an expansive conception of "defense," here expressed by a highly-regarded diplomatic historian, one could readily construct a justification for Hitler's actions in the late 1930s to "defend" Germany against what the Nazi ideologists called the terror and aggression of the Czechs and Poles and the attempted strangulation of Germany by hostile powers. And by the same logic, it would be legitimate for the U.S.S.R. (or Cuba, etc.) to invade the United States "to secure self-determination" there in defense against the clearly stated U.S. challenge "to the very survival of the Soviet and Cuban sociopolitical order."

U.S. policy towards the Soviet Union has fluctuated over the years between two concepts of "containment": rollback and détente. To a considerable extent, the fluctuations reflect the problem of controlling the far-flung domains "defended" by American power, and the need for a credible threat to induce the public to provide a subsidy to advanced industry through the military system.7 The latter issue was recognized in NSC 68. The document estimated the economic power of the Soviet bloc as approximately the same as Western Europe, with Soviet GNP about one quarter that of the United States and its military expenditures about half as great.8 Nevertheless, it called for a great expansion of military spending, warning that the West would face "a decline in economic activity of serious proportions" without this Keynesian stimulus; the military budget was almost quadrupled shortly after, with the Korean war as a pretext. The document obscures the significance of the figures scattered through it, but it was apparently anticipated that some bureaucrat might perform the calculations and draw the obvious conclusions. The author, Paul Nitze, parried this potential insight by observing that the figures mean nothing because, as a poor and underdeveloped society, "the Soviet world can do more with less" -- their weakness is their strength, a constant refrain in other cases too as we defend the Free World from "internal aggression."9 One can see how dire is the threat to our existence when the enemy is so wicked as to exploit the advantage of weakness to overwhelm us.

Over the years, fear of Soviet weakness has been almost as intense as concerns over awesome Soviet power. The task assigned to the responsible strategic analyst, after all, is to establish the conclusion that the U.S. is facing a threat to its existence, so that it is necessary to keep up our guard -- and incidentally, to guarantee that the Pentagon system will continue to perform its crucial domestic and international roles. When it is difficult to conjure up bomber gaps, missile gaps, windows of vulnerability, threats to our survival from superpowers such as Grenada, and the like, other means must suffice, such as the idea that the Soviet world can do more with less.

The problem arose again in late 1988, as analysts sought a way to detect a threat to our survival in Gorbachev's unilateral arms reduction initiatives. A U.S. Air Force intelligence conference on Soviet affairs in Washington may have found the key. Commenting on the conference, strategic analyst William V. Kennedy of the U.S. Army War College warns of a terrible discovery revealing that intelligence assessments for the past thirty-five years were far from the mark and severely underestimated the Soviet threat. U.S. intelligence had believed all along that the Soviet Union had "the most elaborate, best organized and equipped civil defense system on earth -- so elaborate that it might provide the Soviet Union with a major, perhaps decisive advantage in a nuclear conflict." But the Armenia earthquake showed that that assessment was wrong. It revealed "inefficiency on so vast a scale that any US state governor or federal official who presided over such chaos would have been lucky to escape lynching by now" -- a great surprise to U.S. intelligence, apparently, though hardly to anyone with a minimal familiarity with the Soviet Union. This discovery, Kennedy continues, "is staggering in its implications." A paper presented at the intelligence conference, six weeks before the earthquake, had warned that "internal Soviet mismanagement and reemergent nationalism may be a greater threat to world peace than the threat of calculated Soviet aggression as it has been portrayed for the past 40 years." The danger is "that a Soviet leadership that saw carefully laid plans going awry and the fires of nationalism spreading throughout the realm could panic into a desperate international venture" -- the "wounded bear" theory, some call it. The Armenia earthquake confirmed our worst fears: the Soviet Union has no civil defense capacity at all, hence no capacity for a first strike with relative impunity as the hawks had been ominously warning for years. Now we are in real danger: the wounded bear may strike. Surely at this moment of grave national crisis we should not succumb to absurd ideas about weakening our "defensive" capacities.10

Such arguments are premature at a moment when the immediate task is to face the costs of military Keynesian excesses. Their time will come when it is necessary to undertake more militant foreign adventures to preserve the domains of U.S. power or to provide a shot in the arm to high tech industry. It would be naive to assume, however, that strategic theory is incapable of coming up with arguments to support the conclusion that may be required at the moment, whatever the objective facts may be.

Gaddis observes that "To a remarkable degree, containment has been the product, not so much of what the Russians have done, or of what has happened elsewhere in the world, but of internal forces operating within the United States." "What is surprising," he continues, "is the primacy that has been accorded economic considerations [namely, state economic management] in shaping strategies of containment, to the exclusion of other considerations."11 In fact, throughout this period, the policies of military Keynesianism, justified in terms of the Soviet threat, have been instrumental in the growth of high-technology industry and have served as a mechanism of state industrial management, once again in the early Reagan years, with accompanying inflammatory rhetoric about the "Evil Empire" that is "the focus of evil in our time" and the source of all problems in the world. These crucial matters barely enter public discussion. They will not fade away easily, despite much careless talk about the end of the Cold War.

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7 In earlier years, military spending was selected as the major device to overcome the "dollar gap" of the U.S. allies and to ensure that they would remain securely within the U.S.-dominated world system, after the failure of aid programs to achieve their ends. See Borden, Pacific Alliance, for extensive discussion of these themes, which were given their first comprehensive analysis by Joyce and Gabriel Kolko, The Limits of Power (Harper & Row, 1972).

8 A closer examination shows that the figures were misrepresented to exaggerate the impression of Soviet military expenditures and Western weakness, also a familiar pattern over the years.

9 Summarizing an Air Force intelligence conference, strategic analyst William Kennedy warns of the terrible discoveries made by intelligence after the earthquake in Armenia. For years, it had been assumed that the Soviet Union had a magnificent civil defense capacity, so that they could launch a nuclear attack against us and be safe from reprisal. But from the earthquake it was learned -- to the surprise of no one who had any familiarity with the Soviet Union -- that their capabilities are virtually nonexistent. The lack of any civil defense capacity poses "a greater threat to world peace than the threat of calculated Soviet aggression as it has been portrayed for the past 40 years," the intelligence conference concluded gloomily, with an argument that I will not attempt to reproduce. Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 28, 1988.

10 Kennedy, "Tremors that should be felt in Washington," Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 28, 1988.

11 Strategies of Containment, 356-57, his emphasis.