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.