We Will Mock The Brave And Wise

Given the disparity in information that presidents and the general public use to make and judge national security decisions, can we in the general public ever feel confident that we can accurately judge the decisions that presidents make on such matters at the time they make them?

I don’t think so.

Nova on PBS ran an episode this week about the secret history of Sputnik. The show explored the real reason that the Soviets beat the Free World into space: Eisenhower desperately wanted spy satellites to forestall a nuclear Pearl Harbor, so he deliberately held back the U.S. launch and let the Soviets go first. Doing so required the Soviets to establish a legal precedent for satellite fly-over, something Eisenhower desperately wanted so that the U.S. could launch its own spy satellites.

If the Soviets had not gone first they no doubt would have employed their considerable propaganda power to raise powerful objections in international law to the orbiting of satellites. The law of space and subsequent development of space flight of all kinds would have evolved much differently, and most likely much more contentiously. Sputnik represented a subtle strategic coup for the Free World, one that arguably saved the entire world from nuclear destruction by reducing paranoia and fears of a surprise attack on both sides.

Yet the world, and especially the American public, saw Sputnik as a devastating defeat for America. It damaged Eisenhower’s presidency to such a degree that had he been in his first term, the event would have most likely cost him his reelection. It prompted a flurry of legislation that federalized education and scientific research. The sting of the perceived defeat led directly to the largest and most expensive work of political art in the 20th century, the Apollo moon missions.

Sputnik provides one example of a major problem that has dogged U.S. military and foreign policy since the late 1930s: Since the development of a serious national intelligence system, the Executive, intelligence agencies and military operate on a different knowledge base than that of the general public and even of most other federal elected officials. The presidency and the public each possess significantly different understandings of the same problems. Actions by presidents that make perfect sense to insiders seem inexplicable and foolish to everyone else.

This phenomenon only began in earnest during the early years of WWII when the Roosevelt administration plugged itself into British intelligence. Prior to that time, little secrecy existed in the Federal government and such secrecy that did exist involved the minutia of military capabilities and played only a small role in any political decision-making. Presidents and the people used roughly the same information to make decisions. From roughly late 1938 onward, Roosevelt, Truman and the rest of the upper levels of the American government prosecuted their wars and conducted their foreign policy using significantly different information than that available to the general public or even Congress.

Ever since 1977, when the 30 year limit on the deliberations of the National Security Council began to expire, historians found themselves having to furiously rewrite histories written during the interim. The revelations of the real information that the decision-makers of the day worked from required significantly different interpretations of their actions. The revelation of the Ultra Secret in 1973, and its percolation into the general awareness by the mid-’80s, required a complete rewrite of the entire history of the Allied civilian and military leadership during WWII. No event in human history had more eye witnesses or produced more documentation and memoirs, and yet the general public and academics lacked the basic information needed to understand the true course of the War. In the 1990s, the fall of communism and the opening of National Security Council archives from the early ’60s caused a similar rewrite of the history of the Vietnam War that proved the “peace” movement wrong on virtually every major point they argued. The actions of the three presidents who fought the war suddenly did not seem so strange or even evil.

Unfortunately, these rewrites come far too late to have any real-world political import. We can only learn general lessons. To date, the rewrites have almost always improved the reputation of the presidents. In 1960, JFK won elections by playing on the widespread perception that Eisenhower was a doddering, passive and out-of-touch old man who did not recognize the extent of the Soviet threat. Today, we know that Eisenhower was arguably our wisest and most effective cold warrior, who keenly appreciated the threat posed by communism and took direct and effective action to frustrate its plans. Further, he keenly appreciated both the cost and political danger of a militarized America and warned about the dangers of the “military-industrial complex” ( a phrase he coined and popularized). However. all of Eisenhower’s great triumphs occurred in secret. The American public never saw the deft master at work and instead elected JFK who promised and delivered an unprecedented peace-time military buildup and an aggressive and overt attack on communist expansion.

I do wonder what the passage of time will reveal about the current War on Terror. When we today sit in judgment of Bush and Clinton we should remember that we do so from a position of critical ignorance. Despite all the investigations and millions of words written on the subject, we should remember we still don’t really understand why presidents made the decisions they did, any more than the general public in 1947 understood the actions of Roosevelt and Churchill during WWII, or the general public in 1964 understood Eisenhower’s actions in regard to Sputnik.

I think history teaches us that, in their day, we will praise the selfish and foolish and mock the brave and wise.

9 thoughts on “We Will Mock The Brave And Wise”

  1. I second this post and recommend a reading of Ike’s Spies by Stephen Ambrose. Adlai Stevenson couldn’t have held Eisenhower’s IQ jockstrap on his best day ( nor, should it be said, would it have been likely that Ike would have wanted him to do so).

  2. Until the archives and documents are unclassified, and made available to the public, all that we can do is watch the shadows on the cave wall, and make as much or as little sense of them that we can.

    A nice reminder of how little we actually do know for sure. I remember going back and reading a major metropolitan newspaper for the years 1935-1945, and realizing how very incomplete the first draft of history actually is.

  3. Zenpundit,

    Adlai Stevenson’s reputation as an intellectual resisted purely on his articulation, mostly his writing. As near as I can tell, the man never actually did anything of major import before going into politics. The eastern intelligencia, who then had an iron lock on American education and mass media, like him because he was one of him. They interpreted his loss to Ike as indicative of the general publics stupidity.

    It is interesting to see the vast dichotomy between the widely held views of Ike held in and out of academia during the 60’s & 70’s and the views held today. I was in college in the mid-80’s when the transition began to occur. It was really. really apparent to me at the time that the analysis of the previous 30 years was based on vastly incomplete information.

  4. Sgt, Mom,

    I remember going back and reading a major metropolitan newspaper for the years 1935-1945, and realizing how very incomplete the first draft of history actually is.

    One the best things I ever read was a collection of editorials and essays about U.S. foreign policy from two of three years prior to Pearl Harbor. It really taught me how clueless we are as we blunder through history.

  5. Ike’s Spies looks excellent. Ambrose’s biography of Eisenhower is very good, as well, though dry. Eisenhower was one of our best presidents, ever. He gets little credit because he focused on results more than self-promotion, and because disasters which are averted get little credit. One example: Kennedy gets all kinds of credit for “coolness” during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Under Eisenhower there would have been no such crisis because Krushchev would never have pulled such a stunt with him.

  6. Sputnik represented a subtle strategic coup for the Free World […]

    I’m not sure I’d characterize it that way, since the Free World didn’t have much to do with it. More like an own-goal by the Soviets. That said, I’ll still take it. :)

  7. Joshua,

    Ike intentional held back the American satellite project in order to insure that the Soviets went first. He appears to have chosen the untested Vanguard system over the proven Redstone in order to deliberately slow the U.S. program down so that the Soviets could take the lead. Back in the 50’s, American intelligence stilled worked so Ike actually had a good picture of the state of the Soviet program. He knew Sputnik was definitely going up four days before launch and wasn’t surprised by the event at all. So, really, there was nothing accidental about the Soviets going first.

    Remember, the Soviets had not really considered the idea of spy satellites so they viewed Sputnik only through the lens of its propaganda value. There’s no evidence that anyone in the Soviet Union gave serious consideration to the idea until the early 1960’s. I think it is pretty clear that the Ike intentionally created the conditions that led to the outcome he wanted. There was nothing accidental about it.

  8. I dunno. In the runup to Iraq, the President and his advisers kept saying, “Trust us. If you only knew what we know, you would support war with Iraq.” Well, now we know what they knew, and it turns out, they couldn’t produce any more evidence after we had conquered Iraq that the country had a nuclear weapons program than they could before. It turns out, we were operating on the exact same level of knowledge, although it’s likely, since Bush isn’t a newspaper guy, he was operating with significantly less information than those of us w/ access to the New York Times…

    With regard to the Nigerian forgeries for example, Donald Rumsfeld said he had no idea that our best piece of evidence that Iraq had a nuclear weapons program was in fact a crude forgery, even after the New York Times had reported that it was fake. Hence, Rumsfeld, too, was operating w/ substantially less knowledge than some of us who read.

  9. Thorstein Veblen,

    I would point out that people used to say the same thing about Eisenhower in the late 50’s.

    It would also help if you would actually return to the original sources and see what Rumsfeld et al actually said. If you read the intelligence assessment you will see that nobody actually thought that Saddam had an active nuclear program. Instead, they took his ongoing search for uranium, as reported by Joe Wilson and other sources, as evidence that Saddam had not given up his pursuit of nuclear weapons as he was required to by the 1991 seize fire agreement with the U.N. The idea that the forged italian documents played a major role in determining the path to war is a well refuted myth. The primary short term concern with Saddam was always primarily chemical and biological weapons. Even a cursory reading of the full statements of the administration leading up to the war shows this clearly.

    You ignorance reveals another problem with the effect I describe. Most people develop their understanding of what major political figures argued and believed based on second hand reports often produced by people hostile to the politicians. In the pre-internet era, people did not have easy access to entire transcripts of major speeches so they never developed the habit of double-checking the reports themselves. Most people today have still not acquired the habit.

    People also impose their own stereotypes and prejudices on the statements of others. For example, most people seem to think that WMD is synonymous with nukes and that no nukes means no WMDs. Few people understand that an amount of nerve gas equivalent to the weight of a nuclear weapon can kill as many people as the nuke. Most people’s conception of chemical weapons is based on fictional accounts of the us of primitive blistering agents as portrayed in such works as “All’s Quite on the Western Front.” So, when they hear debates about WMDs they assume that the leadership must be worried primarily about nukes. When they later learn something that the leadership knew all along, such that nukes were way down on the threat list, they assume that the leaders made a blunder. They rarely consider that they themselves made a mistake in an area they have not specialized knowledge in.

    Truman left office with a 31% approval rating tied with Nixon as the most unpopular president ever when he left office. Most people thought he did a poor job because they did not understand the import of he actions he took when he took them. Yet today, we consider him a brave and wise leader and a great American president. Democratic presidential candidate fall all over themselves trying to compare themselves to him. The politics of the moment massively distort our assessment of how Presidents do their jobs, especially in the case of national security. With the distance of years, the cooling of passions and the revelation of new information, their reputations improve.

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