A Look at the Cold War and Its Impact on Foreign Policy

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A Look at the Cold War And its Impact on Foreign Policy

House of Wan The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power. James Carroll. Houghton Mifflin Company. 658 pages; photographs, index; $30.

I should be careful what I wish for. Some months ago, in reviewing John Lewis Gaddis' book The Cold War for this magazine, I lamented the lack of a sense in that book of how the Cold War felt. Ironically, I now find myself reviewing another book about the Cold War, this one a work in which feelings are paramount. James Carroll's unfortunately titled House of War presents a history of the Pentagon and the United States as seen through the prism of his own complex experience as Air Force dependent, Catholic priest and now writer and commentator.

The two books are comparable in that they cover the same period of our history, use many of the same sources, consider many of the same figures and incidents and reach some similar conclusions. But while Gaddis sees the Cold War as the inevitable result of the disposition of Allied forces at the end of World War II and the relative economic and political status of the United States and the Soviet Union, Carroll takes a radically different stance: the Cold War, in his view, resulted from profound American misunderstandings of Soviet intentions and capabilities at the end of the war, and from a concerted effort to ensure the supremacy of the United States in world affairs from 1945 on. For Carroll the Pentagon becomes a metaphor for the military strength-particularly nuclear weapons-necessary to maintain this position. He argues that this power corrupted those who used it, and that corruption, in turn, led to a kind of moral bankruptcy, the consequences of which we are now experiencing.

A moral historian, Carroll contends throughout House of War that the United States always had the edge in numbers and quality of nuclear weapons. He begins with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945, arguing that these weapons were aimed more at curbing any Soviet expansionist moves in the Far East. He points out that the act of using these weapons was controversial at the time, and was seen by many inside the government as being unnecessary in forcing the Japanese surrender.

From this point on, he concludes, the United States consistently sought to present itself as the aggrieved, weaker power confronted with a monolithic Soviet threat, a frame of reference that justified massive numbers of nuclear weapons-in effect, placing the United States on a permanent war footing-which warped our ability to make rational (read: moral) decisions with regard to our relationship with the rest of the world.

Carroll contends that the obsessive focus on "national security" has left the country with exactly one tool in the foreign policy toolbox: military force.

Using this lens, he examines the actions of all administrations since the death of Franklin Roosevelt and sees an interesting pattern: a new President, or one feeling threatened by domestic politics, will tend to take a hard national security line, one that almost invariably courts disaster because of its being potentially misunderstood by other countries. He puts Harry Truman's use of the atomic bomb, John F. Kennedy's Bay of Pigs invasion, Richard Nixon's raising of defense conditions in the 1970s and Ronald Reagan's military buildup in the 1980s in this category. Dwight Eisenhower does not conform to this pattern, Carroll argues, because he had already proved himself a wartime leader before becoming President.

Carroll misses few chances to swipe at this militarizing impulse and takes to task civilians like James Forrestal, Paul Nitze, Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, among many others, for using the defense establishment as a high-stakes political tool. Of course, Carroll sees the current war on terrorism as confirming his argument.

In this regard Carroll differs greatly from Gaddis, who asserted that the Cold War had reached a kind of strategic dead end in the late 1970s, and that Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan brought the war to a peaceful end, the West triumphant. …