Commentary Magazine


The Warfare State, by Fred J. Cook

History, Moralism, Distortion

The Warfare State.
by Fred J. Cook.
With a Foreword by Bertrand Russell. Macmillan. 376 pp. $4.95.

This fellow really believes the cold war was begun, and still continues, because of a conspiracy of the American military-industrial complex: such is the entire impression the reader will take away with him from this devious potpourri of a book. One gets to page 244 before encountering the first favorable statement for the American side of things: that in January 1961, although by then it was too late, President Kennedy sincerely wanted a nuclear test ban. Generally speaking, Mr. Cook is “soft” on Kennedy. But he is downright “mushy” on the Soviet Union, and the dozen or so oblique references to the Russians’ lack of perfection which he does include are patently buried-with-care for the sake of the record. The whole rhetorical sweep of the presentation is that we broke the wartime alliance, and subsequently they were willing to be reasonable, but we were not—all because of the aforementioned conspiracy. That simple.

Now, the actual why’s and wherefore’s of our accelerated reliance on the military posture are damning and decisive enough: concocting a silly black-and-white history of the cold war hardly seems necessary. As one proceeds into the book—even granting a measure of forbearance for an individual author’s quota of overstatement, misstatement, and heated imagining, on so important a subject—one is finally taken by a sickening realization: the old Stalinist middle-brow style of thought has survived the whole postwar period unregenerate, and we are back again with that puerile hunger for hostile fairy tales. And one recalls, then, the reports of old-style Stalinist influence in the peace movement. Worst of all: the Stalinoid mentality seems to have learned nothing from the McCarthy period, and it appears ready now to seize upon the resurgence of the paranoid right only to reassert its own inimitable form of pro-Russian paranoia. Which suggests the quality of a possible political polarization in the future.

Mr. Cook is a popular journalist—an expose specialist of the Drew Pearson school of heightened experience. He was with the World-Telegram for fifteen years until 1959, and since then has written award-winning features for The Nation (in which part of the present book appeared) on the FBI, gambling, and New York City. Viewed as a cultural fact, this book poses as its real issue the uses and propriety of popular writing in this country. Specifically: whether, why, and to what extent simplistic distortion is an inevitable part of the technique (as if all lessons were learned in the Hollywood school—and on the classical model of the wartime anti-Nazi films at that). In trying to dramatize issues for a dazed public, the dramatist is in danger of being overwhelmed by the cultural noise of the day: he may try to compete with Hollywood stereotypes, Lucism, and perhaps even television commercials. It’s a mistake: a good story may be ruined in the process.

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There is indeed a very good story to be told about the growth of the military emphasis in our national life: Mr. Cook’s own journalistic excesses are as nothing compared to the military excesses he is trying to describe—the latter could ruin the country. But a few random excerpts from the book will serve to show how an author’s excesses can ruin the impact of whatever it is he has to say:

  1. Historical insight: “Anyone who appreciated the deep distrust and suspicion with which pariah Russia for decades had viewed the capitalistic West, anyone who realized that Russia attributed her victory over Hitler largely to the secrecy she had maintained about her strength and military resources—a secrecy that had led the Nazi Fuehrer into fatal miscalculations—must have had doubts that Russia would ever voluntarily throw wide her doors to such an unlimited inspection system” [proposed by the Baruch plan].
  2. Swift characterization: Contracts let without competitive bidding “are conferred on a select few top companies at the whim of procurement officers. . . .”
  3. Style: “In the rabbit warren of the Pentagon, publicity branches and bureaus spread in octopus fashion.”
  4. Dramatic insight: “The cold war began eleven days after Roosevelt’s death when Truman called in Molotov and dressed him down, because of Poland, like a mule-driver.”
  5. Legal summation: “This deliberately fomented public hysteria [following the Russian A-bomb] was to lead directly to some of the most controversial and most dubious prosecutions in American judicial history—the Hiss case, the Remington case, and the execution of the Rosenbergs for ‘stealing the secret’ of the atomic bomb.” (Also referred to later as “the infinitely suspect Hiss and Remington cases. . . .”)
  6. Unnamable: The $100 million of military-industrial expense-accounting “is the apex; this is the point of juncture, the end and the purpose, of more than $50 billion annually” in military expenditure.
  7. Ditto: “There is hardly an area in our lives today in which the military influence is anything less than supreme.”
  8. Pure distortion: In this long review of military influence, there is no mention whatsoever that it was the military who brought McCarthy down.

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Underneath this sweeping jumble lie buried some actual facts and some truth about our military emphasis. One is just about ready once again to slam down the book in disgust (and weep privately for both the nation and the liberals in it who seem never quite equal even to stating the issues properly), when a new fact or even an accurate perception obtrudes—and one reads on. But finishing, one asks in irritation: Why did he have to ruin the whole story by assuming conspiracy on the American side, and ignoring all threatening initiative by the Russians?

The underlying narrative states, and even fleshes out in a degree, the basic proposition on the military question: the 1937—38 recession, marking the end of the New Deal, was never properly resolved in political terms; it was transcended by a shift to war production. Thus the New Deal did not solve the structural problems of the economy which were the key to the Great Depression—the quasi-“solution” of these was linked of course to the accompanying expansion of military production. The big corporations were thereby benefited directly and indirectly: this is not arguable, nor is the absolute dependence of the whole economy on the achieved level of military expenditure in question. In effect, a truce was made between the forces of the New Deal and major corporate power in order to fight World War II. We have, for the past quarter-century now, translated most major issues of the political economy into terms of a temporary military solution, with the obvious effect that we have become deeply wedded to the military both domestically and in our foreign affairs. The chief disaster involved in this development is not the immense waste of military production, but that we are trapped in a much too narrow political resolution. It clearly has become inordinately difficult to dissolve the truce made in World War II and get on with the business of creating American history.

But this story simply cannot be told as if Russia had given us no cause for a military response—which is the way Mr. Cook tells it. It is, moreover, a terribly sentimental reading of the past—particularly for purposes of dealing with a nuclear present and future—to emphasize our historical “mistakes,” even on the assumption that much of our action was determined by an anti-Soviet military-industrial complex: as if one were to try to understand the modern world by blaming “everything” on Anglo-French policy in the Spanish Civil War! Thus, even granting a great deal of Mr. Cook’s side of the rational argument, it still fails to support the miasma of his conspiracy view of things.

Mr. Cook is obviously correct when he says: “It is no accident that the forces in our society that are most eager for war (at least, a cold war) are the same forces that most abhor the Welfare State.” Or when he states the depression-wartime conflict ironically: “Obviously a WPA for human beings was subversive of American ideals, but a Military WPA for industry represented the noblest form of free enterprise.” And when he connects, like the competent workaday reporter he is, the fact that Georgia claims the chairmen of both the Senate and House Armed Services Committee and is likewise loaded with military installations, one may understand his indignation. He makes a pretty good case—he is not alone in this—concerning our lack of candor and seriousness in the disarmament negotiations. His summary of the shelter issue is one-sided, but certainly more right than wrong, and it is an effective bit of writing; similarly, his run-down on the radical right and its connection with the military.

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When all that is said, the book still cannot be recommended to serious people—it is too distorted. It would take at least another book to restore a reasonably accurate perspective. I suggested a few paragraphs back that the real point of a book like this today is the question raised about popular writing in this country. I mean, we would have to go back to the old Stalinist influence in Hollywood and other popular media; then note the deep connection between artistic-intellectual work that is less than adequate for its author, and his consequent need for a nice hostile ideology directed against both the employer and the audience; and finally bring that disheartening, crumby story up-to-date. All that would be a separate essay in social history. But I would like to suggest that the key is: (1) hatred of American experience; (2) guilt for that; and (3) moralism as the mell of confused minds. Moralism—especially when it can be buttressed by the hysteria of critical times, as today—is almost irresistible to the intellectual who must simplify for less educated audiences, and who at the same time must satisfy his own personal need for order in the world. Especially an order that accounts for his hostility toward the audience for which he simplifies. In other words, if I distort for them, why not also a little for me? The old Stalinism of the intellectuals was a popular morality of this kind. But it had deep American roots in the even older conspiracy-notions of uneducated or recently educated farmers. Heat it to the boiling point, and moralism will always uncover a conspiracy “out there.”

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