John Kenneth Galbraith has been a critic of the "conventional wisdom" for some time. In fact, he takes credit for coining the phrase "conventional wisdom," which he first used in his most famous book, The Affluent Society.
In The Age of Uncertainty (1977), Galbraith recalled the national security debate of the 1950s:
The nineteen-fifties in Washington were the years not of Eisenhower but of [hawkish Secretary of State John Foster] Dulles. The idea of the irrepressible conflict went virtually unchallenged. The questioning to which, in a democratic society, every important action of the state should be subject was almost completely in abeyance. I saw this, in a minor way, at first hand. I was cochairman with Dean Acheson in the latter fifties of one of the subsidiary organs of the Democratic Party, the Democratic Advisory Council. Acheson was chairman for foreign policy, I for domestic policy. The Council was, by common agreement, the most liberal wing of the opposition — the leading edge. At our meetings Acheson attacked Dulles lucidly, brilliantly and with resourceful invective for being too soft on the Soviets. The debate on his draft foreign policy resolutions consisted almost exclusively of efforts — by Adlai Stevenson, Averell Harriman, Herbert Lehman and other moderate members — to tone down his declarations of war. That was the opposition to Dulles.
I've thought about this quite a bit the last few months as the debate over the Iraq War and military policy develops. In the 1950s, the main debate over military spending was between those who wanted to spend less by relying heavily on using the threat of nuclear weapons (the Eisenhower administration's position) and those who wanted to spend much more on the military to reduce the heavy reliance on nuclear weapons (liberal Democrats).
What was seriously missing from the mainstream debate was meaningful criticism of the more dubious assumptions of the actions taking in the name of waging the Cold War against Communism. Policymakers were very late in understanding the extent of the split between the Soviet Union and China, which was already far advanced by the late 1950s. This was in part because the McCarthy period resulted in the purging and other departures of many of the government's leading experts on China.
Moves like the overthrow of the Mossadeq government in Iran in 1953 and the Arbenz government in Guatemala in 1954 should have been seriously questioned. In some very real ways, we're still living with the unanticipated consequences of the overthrow of the moderate secular Mossadeq and his replacement by the Shah. Was the discomfort of United Fruit company over land reform in Guatemala really important enough for the US to be overturning sovereign governments in Latin America?
I was reminded of this again listening to Gen. Clark's testimony before the House Armed Services Committee yesterday. One of the things he told the Committee was that to maintain the current level of American troops in Iraq, we would need to add 90,000 active duty soldiers to the Army, plus an unspecified additional number to the Army Reserves. According to the numbers he used, we currently have 650,000 active duty soldiers in the Army, including reservists. (This part of the testimony starts around 1 hr. 57 min. on the audio recording; see April 6. As of now, the Committee site has *.pdf files of Clark's and Perle's opening statements.)
I worry that we could wind up with a situation similar to the 1950s, when both parties are posturing to show how they are more aggressive in military policy than the other. I could see Democrats and Republicans agreeing on expanding the size of the active-duty Army, but not being able to agree on cutting even obvious boondoggles like the Star Wars "missile defense" hoax.
And that would not be a good outcome. It's generally accepted that the United States is currently spending 1/2 of the military budgets of the entire world. That just doesn't make sense to me. And however much we may believe in American wisdom and virtue, when you have a huge military, there will be a huge bureaucracy that has a need to justify its own existence. Or, to put it another way, to find enemies and urgent threats and potential threats and possible threats to US national security. Then when you have out-and-out warmongers like Richard Perle around just making up phony threats like the Iraqi WMDs, the bigger the military is, people like Perle will have more opportunities to create threats.
Galbraith has been able to talk about issues like that in ways that it seems not many liberals are willing to do today. Here's how he described that dynamic during the 1950s:
At the more practical level, the Pentagon in these years developed weapons systems that were often duplicating or competitive and which were routinely approved. The word Pentagon itself now became a synonym for military bureaucracy and power, and a large and growing weapons industry responded to its will. Men moved with ease from managing the procurement of weapons in Washington to managing their development or manufacture in California. Few spoke against their decisions. The Armed Services Committees of the Congress endorsed all. In 1945, Robert Oppenheimer, the architect of the atomic bomb, was the most heroic figure in the history of American science. A reference to "Oppy" was the highest American achievement in the art of name-dropping, superior if anything to a British reference to Winston, though hardly as imaginative as a French allusion to Charles. In 1953, Oppenheimer's security clearance was lifted; he was excluded from all Washington deliberation and meditation. His substantive sin was in expressing doubts about the wisdom and desirability of the H-bomb. The Oppenheimer case showed as nothing else could have shown that no one in official position, however prestigious, had the right of dissent.
The questioning and dissent outside the government were equally unimpressive.
If the Richard Perles of the world have there way, this will be a never-ending process.
Listening to that wretched Perle, it strikes me that one thing at least he's good at: digging up bad historical analogies. He can't seem to open his mouth without coming up with one.