Blogs > HNN > Lawrence S. Wittner: Review of Ira Chernus's Apocalypse Management: Eisenhower and the Discourse of National Insecurity (Stanford University Press, 2008)

Jun 22, 2008 9:58 pm

Lawrence S. Wittner: Review of Ira Chernus's Apocalypse Management: Eisenhower and the Discourse of National Insecurity (Stanford University Press, 2008)

[Dr. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book, co-edited with Glen H. Stassen, is Peace Action: Past, Present, and Future (Paradigm Publishers).]

How should we explain the fact that, despite the end of the Cold War nearly two decades ago, U.S. government officials are thoroughly obsessed with an alleged national security crisis and champion the largest military budget in U.S. history? Some would attribute this situation to the rise of terrorism, others to a growing conflict over world resources, yet others to a military-industrial complex, and still others to the structure of the international system.

In Apocalypse Management, Ira Chernus—Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado/Boulder—weighs in with a different explanation for their ongoing sense of global crisis. "U.S. leaders view ever-changing geopolitical realities through the prism of an essentially unchanging linguistic structure," he argues. "Their responses to new realities are shaped and limited" by this structure—one that he calls "apocalypse management."

Its basic premises, Chernus maintains, "are simple and familiar: The United States faces enemies who wish to, and very well may, destroy the nation and its way of life. Thus every confrontation with these foes is an apocalyptic struggle." Even so, "the traditional apocalyptic solution of eliminating evil is ruled out. The enemy threat is now a permanent fact of life. The best to hope for is to contain and manage it forever. . . . Enduring stability—preventing dangerous change—is the only kind of victory to hope for, and the only kind of permanent peace."

Chernus traces the "new linguistic paradigm" of apocalypse management to President Dwight Eisenhower and his administration, contending that it not only "profoundly influenced their policymaking," but "came to dominate American public discourse." Dubbed "Alarmist Ike" by fellow officers in the years before World War II, Eisenhower "never stopped being `Alarmist Ike,' articulating and fearing worst-case scenarios triggered by humanity's innate selfishness." Although "he told himself and his subordinates that leaders must never show even a hint of despair," he had "a strong . . . Augustinian streak."

As a result, there could be no solution to international problems. According to Chernus, Eisenhower's "ideological discourse held out no hope for peace with the communists. So he neither initiated nor contemplated any concrete steps that would foster a closer relationship or any sense of mutuality between the two great powers. From Eisenhower's Augustinian perspective, the enemy's threat had to be eternal because it was a manifestation of the eternal power of sin." And because no concrete steps toward peace were taken, "the national insecurity state endured."

Throughout Apocalypse Management, a book extraordinarily well grounded in primary sources, Chernus does a good job in making the case that the Eisenhower administration's alarmist vision limited its creativity in international affairs. In its pages, Eisenhower emerges as a president who, though reluctant to wage hot wars or burden a capitalist economy with a substantially expanded U.S. military budget, placed his ultimate faith in military strength. Yes, the president's farewell address warned "against the acquisition of unwarranted influence . . . by the military-industrial complex . . . the conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry." But Chernus reminds us that the next sentences in this famous speech are: "We recognize the imperative need for this development. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action."

In addition, as Chernus mentions in passing, Eisenhower perceived U.S. national security as including a thriving capitalist economy. And this, in turn, entailed Western access to the natural resources of other nations. In 1958, amid discussions of the Eisenhower Doctrine for the Middle East, the president wrote in his diary: "The true issue in the Middle East is whether or not the Western world can maintain its rightful opportunity to purchase vitally needed oil supplies."

Nuclear weapons, Chernus emphasizes, constituted "the center" of Eisenhower's national security policy. During his term of office, the U.S. government for the first time developed deliverable H-bombs, ballistic missiles, submarine-based nuclear weapons, and tactical nuclear weapons. Between 1955 and 1960 alone, the megatonnage (i.e. the destructive power) of the U.S. nuclear arsenal quadrupled.

These nuclear forces, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles declared, were for the purpose of "massive retaliation" against Communist aggression—a military strategy with which Eisenhower thoroughly agreed. The prospect of nuclear war "should not throw us off balance," Eisenhower told congressional leaders. The United States must be "willing to 'push its whole stack of chips into the pot.'" In the nuclear age, he insisted, the only possible plan was "to hit the Russians where and how it would hurt most. . . . Hit the guy fast with all you've got." As any war in Europe would be an all-out nuclear war, the United States "must be ready to throw the book" at the enemy, to "destroy his will by destroying his cities."

Moreover, Eisenhower approved of preemptive nuclear strikes. In the early 1950s, during the crisis over China's offshore islands, Eisenhower publicly threatened to use U.S. nuclear weapons "exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else." Some years later, NSC 5810/1 made it official U.S. policy to treat nuclear weapons "as conventional weapons; and to use them whenever required to achieve national objectives." Chernus observes that, "whereas Truman had made the atomic bomb a weapon of last resort, Eisenhower made both the atomic and hydrogen bombs, in effect, weapons of first resort."

Curiously, for a man with a pessimistic streak, Eisenhower considered a nuclear war quite winnable. In June 1955, during the largest U.S. civil defense exercise yet held, the president was told that 53 U.S. cities had been "destroyed or badly damaged," with enormous fallout "all over the country." Retreating to a secret hiding place in the Appalachians, he informed the National Security Council: "Our great objective here is (a) to avert disaster, and (b) to win the war." The following day, at an underground Cabinet meeting, he declared that "our great fundamental problem will be how to mobilize what is left of 165 million people and win." To manage this, government officials would "have to run this country as one big camp—severely regimented."

In 1959, although estimates of the consequences of a nuclear war had grown to horrifying proportions, the Eisenhower administration continued its upbeat outlook. NSC 5904/1, the official U.S. policy for global war, stated that America's first objective was "to prevail, and survive as a nation" by planning for a "quick recovery." To protect the U.S. population during a nuclear war, Eisenhower emphasized the need for rapid evacuation of U.S. cities. According to the report of one administration meeting, he expressed his satisfaction that "our thinking had now progressed to a point that he had been stressing for a long time, namely, how can we recover from a massive nuclear attack."

To be sure, much of the world was much less enthusiastic about nuclear war, and the Eisenhower administration came under significant pressure from overseas and domestic opinion to foster nuclear disarmament. Nevertheless, as Chernus argues, although the administration made gestures in this direction, only one of them was serious. This was a proposal for inspecting military facilities, which was valued for averting a surprise attack rather than for fostering disarmament. Frightened of Communism and committed to a nuclear buildup, Eisenhower merely went through the motions when it came to disarmament issues. Disarmament policy, Chernus notes, was "above all, a matter of public relations."

Although Apocalypse Management provides a revealing picture of the limits of the Eisenhower administration's national security policy, one might question whether the book proves its case in other areas. For example, how significant was a "linguistic paradigm"—as opposed to other factors—in setting the parameters of Eisenhower administration policy? Moreover, even if one accepts the power of this kind of linguistic construct in the 1950s, to what extent have subsequent U.S. administrations and the American population been bound by it? And, if they have been, why?

These questions cannot be easily answered. And, in fairness to Chernus, they cannot all be addressed in a single book.

But it is certainly worth exploring why, year after year, U.S. government officials tell Americans that a military buildup will defend their national security and, then, reappear the next year to tell them, correctly, that they are less secure than before. Can this phenomenon be explained by the fact that, in the modern world, military strength does not necessarily enhance national security, and might even undermine it? The evidence provided by Apocalypse Management, as well as by the current world situation, suggests an answer in the affirmative.

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