William Stueck: Torture and “the one percent doctrine”

Roundup: Historians' Take

[William Stueck is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Georgia. He is currently writing a history of U.S.-Korean relations. He is the author of, among other works, Rethinking the Korean War (Princeton University P, 2002) and The Korean War: An International History (Princeton U, 1995).]

This is end-of-the-semester crunch time, but the lead story in the New York Times this morning is sufficiently powerful and disturbing to get me away from a pile of student papers. I confess that revelations that the Bush administration adopted tactics used by the Chinese Communists in the Korean War turned my stomach. Yet it occurs to me that this should be as much a time for reflection as for outrage. With that in mind, let I offer three observations.

First, it is relevant that one of the few former Bush administration officials commenting in the article who permitted his name to be cited is Philip Zelikow, who apparently had nothing to do with the policy regarding torture. Zelikow talks about the need for proper staff work in the lead-up to making important decisions, a point he is well-positioned to make having at one point co-taught a course with Ernest May at the Kennedy School designed to train decision-makers in the art of using history. May’s co-authored book with Richard Neustadt, Thinking in Time, which is based on the original course, is arguably as important a book written (partly) by a historian in the last several decades. One of its key prescriptive points when faced with a decision: “Stop, what’s the story?” Apparently, top officials made their decisions and/or recommendations on the torture issue without even knowing the origins of the techniques proposed!

That leads to my second point. There is still much of the story that we don’t know, so we, as historians, should be especially careful not to pretend that definitive conclusions can be rendered at this point. For example, we don’t know all that much about the intelligence regarding other possible attacks on the U.S. homeland in the aftermath of 9/11. As much as we might be suspicious of Dick Cheney’s vague claims, we at least need to keep our minds open enough to absorb new evidence as it emerges and, if necessary, to change our minds. We do not, in this case as in most others, operate under the pressures of time that government decision-makers often do–so we have little excuse to run around half-cocked, talking as if we are the source of all wisdom.

Finally, as part of the mix in a debate that is sure to rage on for years, I would suggest we devote a good deal of attention to Cheney’s “one percent doctrine,” that is, that if there is a one percent chance of an attack on the United States, we must act decisively to prevent it. My own inclination is to believe that if that doctrine represented the operational code of the most powerful nation on earth it would lead that nation into constant war and, ultimately, the unification of much of the rest of the world against it. The lives of nations as of individuals involve risk, and the task of U.S. leaders is to determine when risk is of such magnitude that it justifies extreme measures. If a one percent risk of attack strikes most of us as a dangerously low standard, then what is a reasonable one?

If we simply declare that any kind of torture–anytime–is unjustified, we stand to lose our credibility with a good deal of the reading public, both as interpreters of the past and prescribers for the present and future. For the moment we should lower our voices and focus on the first prudent step in developing an opinion, piecing together the story.

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