Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power - Rachel Maddow (2012)

Chapter 2. A Nation at Peace Everywhere in the World

WHEN RONALD REAGAN SPOKE A THING ALOUD, HE BELIEVED it forever and for always. By the time he started running for president, in 1976, he had already developed an unwavering and steadfast faith in the correctness of whatever came out of his mouth. “Once he had made an emotional commitment to this or that policy or story,” Reagan’s most sympathetic biographer, Edmund Morris, would write, “no amount of disproof would cause him to alter his belief in it.” Facts and contrary evidence did not get in the way of a good story—especially one that appeared to set his audiences’ heads bobbing in knowing assent. Welfare queens were driving around Chicago’s South Side in Cadillacs, he’d say out on the stump; one had defrauded the clueless federal government to the tune of $150,000 a year tax-free! Public housing in East Harlem had gone luxury: “You can get an apartment with eleven-foot ceilings,” Reagan told a group in the early primary state of New Hampshire, “with a twenty-foot balcony, a swimming pool, laundry room, and play room.” The federal government was spending $90 billion a year on welfare and other programs the states should be administering. So let ’em do it. That’d balance the federal budget right there. It all sounded about right to Reagan, and to a lot of the people who showed up for his rallies.

And still, the Gipper could not seem to get the necessary traction in that first race for the Republican nomination. The sitting (though unelected, as Reagan would point out) president, Gerald Ford, defeated the onetime governor in the first six primaries that year, including the one in Reagan’s birth state of Illinois by nearly twenty points. By early spring, Nancy Reagan was trying to gentle her husband out of the race; the campaign was so broke his managers weren’t sure they could afford the jet fuel to get his yellow Hughes Airwest DC-9 charter plane (the Big Banana, the press corps was calling it) to the next contest in North Carolina. But Reagan thought he still had one more card to play, maybe the trump card, against the president who knuckled under to Congress and bailed on the last war.

For Reagan, it wasn’t just that Ford had “bugged out” of Vietnam, or that the president was playing footsie with Congress about cutting defense spending. It was the whole issue of national security—the politically potent, unbearably humiliating idea that the United States of America appeared weak in the eyes of the world. Just look at what was happening right under our noses, Reagan told audiences in North Carolina. They might not be aware of it, but President Ford was about to give in to the veiled threats of Panamanian leader Gen. Omar Torrijos. “What are the quiet, almost secret, negotiations we’re engaged in to give away the Panama Canal?” Reagan began to ask his audiences. “The Canal Zone is not a colonial possession. It is not a long-term lease. It is sovereign United States territory every bit the same as Alaska and all the states that were carved from the Louisiana Purchase. We should end those negotiations and tell the general: We bought it, we paid for it, we built it, and we intend to keep it!”

Oh, that was the line his audiences responded to. Reagan’s wide-eyed pollster could see his numbers rising in North Carolina and egged him on. Voters might not know a damn thing about the tangled history of Panama and the canal, or of the agreements the United States already had in place there, or of the actual workings of the canal. But they sure liked a politician who stood up and said, They’re not gonna take it away from us. It struck the same nerve as that movie that was just out, Network, with its catchphrase “I’m mad as hell!… And I’m not going to take it anymore!”

“Wrong-headed as it is,” noted Time magazine, “Reagan’s jingoism on the canal has apparently struck a nerve among parts of the electorate, arousing post-Vietnam sentiments that the U.S. should not be pushed around in its own hemisphere by, in Reagan’s words, ‘a tinhorn dictator.’ Insists Reagan, ‘The Latin American countries have a respect for macho. I think if the United States reacts with firmness and fairness, we might not earn their love, but we would earn their respect.’ ”

Reagan won North Carolina going away.

There was blowback. That old nuclear tree-pruning super-hawk Barry Goldwater called out Reagan for thoroughgoing dishonesty on the Canal issue. Plenty of journalists took Reagan to task for his absolute and complete fabrication about the Canal Zone being sovereign US territory. But Reagan did not back away. Like a good spokesman armed with a memorable Madison Avenue–like tagline, he just said it louder and more often. “We bought it, we paid for it, we built it, and we intend to keep it!” And by all appearances, he really believed it, with all his heart.

The week after his North Carolina victory Reagan bought half an hour of prime-time television—nine thirty on a Wednesday night—and he used it to goose the pretend threat level: “There is one problem which must be solved or everything else is meaningless. I am speaking of the problem of our national security. Our nation is in danger, and the danger grows greater with each passing day.” The Ford administration was asleep at the wheel while Cuba’s Communist strongman Fidel Castro continued to “export revolution” to Puerto Rico and Angola and a score of places in between, Reagan said. We had sacrificed democratic Taiwan to Communist China. Then there was the Panama giveaway. And worst of all, the Soviets were cleaning our clocks in war-making capabilities: “The Soviet Army outnumbers ours more than two to one and in Reserves four to one. They outspend us on weapons by fifty percent. Their Navy outnumbers ours in surface ships and submarines two to one. We’re outgunned in artillery three to one and their tanks outnumber ours four to one. Their strategic nuclear missiles are larger, more powerful, and more numerous than ours.”

None of these stark and terrifying “facts” about Soviet military superiority were true, but really, that was beside the point. “The evidence mounts that we are Number Two in a world where it’s dangerous, if not fatal, to be second best.” He believed in peace “as much as any man,” he said. “But peace does not come from weakness or from retreat. It comes from the restoration of American military superiority.”

The turnaround after North Carolina was dramatic: After going 0 for 6 at the start of the primary season, Reagan won four of the next six primaries, swept up every delegate in Texas, Alabama, and Georgia, and extended the race all the way to the convention that summer. He did grudgingly concede to Gerald Ford at that convention, but Ronald Reagan never again took his eyes off the White House. He had made himself a big pin on the political map and he understood exactly how he’d done it. When something worked for Reagan, he stuck with it. So while the new Democratic president who defeated Ford, Jimmy Carter, picked up the Ford policy and negotiated a strategically beneficial treaty with Panama, while mainstream Democrats and Republicans in the Senate joined together to work toward the two-thirds vote necessary for ratification, while right-wing archbishop William F. Buckley and America’s beloved tough guy John Wayne (yes, that John Wayne) campaigned full-on for the ratification of Carter’s treaty, Reagan demagogued with a vengeance. “The loss of the Panama Canal,” Reagan said in one of his weekly radio addresses, “would contribute to the encirclement of the US by hostile naval forces, and thereby [threaten] our ability to survive.”

Even after John Wayne sent Reagan a private and personal note offering to show him “point by goddamn point in the treaty where you are misinforming people,” and offering fair warning that it was time for the Gipper to shut his piehole (“If you continue to make these erroneous remarks, someone will publicize your letter to prove that you are not as thorough in your reviewing of this treaty as you say or are damned obtuse when it comes to reading the English language”), Ronald Reagan doubled down. He cited a former “defense intelligence” expert, Gen. Daniel O. Graham (and put a pin in that name), who said rumors of Castro’s Communist minions at work in the fields of Panama were based on “pretty solid evidence.” He also cited a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs who “expressed the gravest concern about surrendering the canal to a leftist oriented government allied with Cuba, citing the danger of giving this advantage to a man who might permit Soviet power and influence to prevail by proxy over the canal. He said the ‘economic lifeline of the entire Western hemisphere would be jeopardized.’ ”

In private correspondence with his good friend Bill Buckley, leading up to their nationally televised 1978 Firing Line debate on the Panama issue, Reagan professed a much more accommodating view, one that involved maybe internationalizing the operation of the Canal. But on TV he stuck to his crowd-pleasing hard line. “We bought it, we paid for it, we built it, and we intend to keep it!” was not a slogan that invited waffling. “We would become a laughingstock by surrendering to unreasonable demands, and by doing so, I think we cloak weakness in the suit of virtue” was how Reagan closed the Firing Line debate. “I think that the world would see it as, once again, Uncle Sam putting his tail between his legs and creeping away rather than face trouble.”

Buckley was on the right side of history in his argument for the treaty. Panama’s subsequent control of the Canal did not create a threat to “the economic lifeline of the entire western hemisphere,” or any other kind of threat to the United States. It’s been a technocratic nonissue for the most part. But the intellectual father of the modern conservative movement still marveled at the rewarding political vein Reagan had tapped. “I think that Governor Reagan put his finger on it when he said the reason this treaty is unpopular is because we’re tired of being pushed around.”

By the time the Canal treaty made it to the Senate floor for ratification, Reagan’s histrionics had almost torpedoed the thing, aided by millions of desperate, pants-on-fire direct-mail appeals from the Conservative Caucus, and by the American Conservative Union’s “documentary” with the self-parodying title “There Is No Panama Canal … There Is an American Canal in Panama.” “This may be the most important TV program you’ve ever watched,” an ACU spokesman blared on the eve of the broadcast. What should have been a slam-dunk ratification became an act of political courage in the Senate. Reagan and his growing right-wing “truth” machine had stirred public opinion to such a frothy head that Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker was warned that a vote for the treaty would cost him any chance at the GOP presidential nomination in 1980. On the way to the Senate floor to cast his aye vote, a popular centrist Democrat from New Hampshire asked his wife to “come on and watch me lose my seat.”

The treaty squeaked through by a single vote, but it gave Reagan and the right wing of the Republican Party an issue that kept on giving. The next two election cycles were bloodbaths for the Senate Democrats. That New Hampshire senator lost his seat; so did the treaty’s floor manager, four-term senator Frank Church, who could not overcome a last-minute conservative ad blitz funded by the National Conservative Political Action Committee: “Now that all the shouting is over, remember the Panama Canal, built with American blood and treasure. Frank Church voted to give it away.” Birch Bayh of Indiana lost to a callow, lightweight Republican named Dan Quayle, and the 1972 presidential nominee George McGovern lost his South Dakota seat in an embarrassing 58–39 landslide.

But the Reagan assault didn’t stop at the party line. A slew of moderate Republicans who had supported the treaty were swept aside for being weak-kneed, such as Kansan James B. Pearson, who retired amid catcalls that he was not “Republican enough,” and old lions like Clifford Case and Jacob Javits, who lost ignominiously in the primary to a county supervisor from Long Island named Alfonse D’Amato. In November 1980, when Republicans gained control of the Senate for the first time since the end of 1954, this was not your father’s Republican Party. The Senate newbies were amped up, doctrinaire, undistracted by facts on the ground, and primed for a fight in which America could prove itself mighty once again. And at the head of the parade was the new president-elect, Ronald Wilson Reagan.

• • •

Just a few months before Ronald Reagan became America’s fortieth president, a former director of the White House Military Office wrote a book revealing the contents held within the world’s most terrifying valise, America’s “nuclear football.” They included an eight-to-ten-page list of secure and comfortable accommodations available to the president in the event of nuclear war; a black book full of cartoonish illustrations, with a constantly updated menu of retaliation possibilities (“Rare,” “Medium,” and “Well-Done”) thoughtfully highlighted in red; and a simple three-by-five-inch recipe card with the authentication codes the president needed to unleash our nation’s full lethal fury.

Protocol regarding the nuclear football was well established by the time Reagan entered the White House. The military aide carrying the Zero Halliburton briefcase for the day was tasked to stick close to the president. The first reason was operational. Our commander in chief had to have that case at the ready at all hours, with the authentication codes easy to find, just in case. At a moment’s notice, the president could dial up anything from “firing a tactical nuclear weapon, one of them,” remembered a later nuclear-football-toting aide, “to full-bore Armageddon.” The second reason for full-time proximity was more in the realm of public relations. Photojournalists were always snapping pictures of the president, so the Soviets were certain to get constant pictorial reminders that our nuclear button was never beyond reach. Consequently, White House military aides saw a lot of the president, which perhaps bred a certain amount of familiarity, which could be why one aide, John Kline, wondered aloud if maybe Ronald Reagan was doing something out of line. Kline noticed that his boss was saluting members of the armed forces. Soldiers were supposed to salute their president; the president was not supposed to salute the soldiers. No modern president, not even old General Eisenhower, had saluted military personnel. It might even be, well, sort of, improper. Reagan seemed disappointed at this news. Kline suggested he talk to the commandant of the United States Marine Corps and get his advice, and the commandant’s advice ran something like this: You’re the goddamn president. You can salute whoever you goddamn well please. So Ronald Reagan continued saluting his soldiers, and he encouraged his own vice president and successor, George H. W. Bush, to do the same. And every president since has followed.

Ronald Reagan loved the military; even long after he left the presidency he was still extolling the virtues of martial efficiency as compared to the federal government’s bloated, bureaucrat-driven civil service system. When he saluted the military, Reagan really meant it. He’d been a soldier himself, he’d sometimes remind people, a captain in fact, with a pretty high security clearance. Way back in 1937, Reagan had done the patriotic thing and signed up as a reserve officer in the US Army Cavalry. Because of the actor’s debilitating nearsightedness, the Reserves had deemed Reagan capable of only “limited duty.” But then, after Pearl Harbor, and just as his movie career seemed finally to be taking off, the cavalry unceremoniously plucked him out of his $5,000-a-week job as a contract player at Warner Bros. and sent him to a San Francisco supply depot loading ships bound for Australia. Lt. Reagan never complained. His country was at war and this was what he’d signed on for.

The Army physical didn’t do much for Reagan’s self-esteem, as he described it in one of his autobiographies: “One of the doctors who was administering the test told me after checking my eyes that if they sent me overseas, I’d shoot a general. The other doctor said, ‘Yes, and you’d miss him.’ My report read: ‘Confined to the continental limits, eligible for corps area service command or War Department overhead only.’ ” He’d be good for pushing paper, in other words, and that was about it.

As luck would have it, Reagan’s old studio boss, Jack Warner, had just been sworn into the Army as a lieutenant colonel, though unlike Lt. Reagan, Warner got to keep drawing his civilian salary. Warner’s orders were to stand up a movie-making team within the Army Air Corps. The First Motion Picture Unit, Fum-Poo in Army acronym speak, would be responsible for the Air Corps’ total celluloid output, from combat photography of bombing runs to full-blown rah-rah morale-building motion pictures to training films for pilots and their crews such as Aircraft Wood Repair: Parts 1 thru 4; Uncrating and Assembly of the Thunderbolt Airplane; Oil Fires, Their Prevention and Extinguishment; and Land and Live in the Jungle and its sequels Land and Live in the Desert and How to Survive in the Arctic.

Warner needed men familiar with movie production. So two months into his tour at the port in San Francisco, Reagan received orders to report to the old Hal Roach Studios in Culver City for his new job as Fum-Poo’s personnel officer, where he could also moonlight as needed as an actor and narrator for the unit films. His commander in San Francisco, a career officer from Virginia Military Institute, was flabbergasted by Reagan’s new assignment. The Army had a long history of mismatching men and jobs, but Reagan’s assignment to the Army’s in-house movie studio was a move of exquisite logic and thoroughgoing good sense. “In thirty-four years, this is the first time I’ve ever seen the Army make sense,” said the colonel. “This is putting a square peg in a square hole.” Reagan might not have had great potential as a soldier, but few men were better equipped to perform the role of a soul-stirring make-believe soldier.

Reagan could be amused by the goings-on at Fort Roach—“a completely unofficial title, and one, I think, that was not intended to be complimentary,” he wrote in his autobiography. He always got a chuckle out of seeing some visiting regular Army colonel saluting an actor-private who was costumed as a general. But the mission of Fum-Poo was no joke to Reagan. Even the simplest training films required mastery of both the craft of filmmaking and the technical know-how of flying and maintaining America’s expensive new weapons—an array of advanced high-altitude bombers and aerobatic fighter planes with the latest electronic control systems.

But the real Hollywood magic was reserved, in the dark days after Pearl Harbor, for the Big Sell. At the beginning of the war, Army Air Corps chief Hap Arnold figured he needed fifty thousand pilots and maybe triple that number of crewmen. The general needed a recruiting tool, and wanted movies with heart-thumping scenes of the “full inspirational splendor of roaring engines,” he said, “of tight bomber formations gliding through the clouds,” to be distributed in target-rich environments like high schools and colleges. Pilots signed up by the droves. Reagan’s future vice president enlisted right out of high school, against his own father’s advice. But when the Air Corps fell short of the enlistment quota for its most notoriously dangerous assignment, rear gunner, Arnold turned to Jack Warner and Fum-Poo to help him invest that job with “some romantic appeal.”

The result was a twenty-six-minute short film, Rear Gunner, starring Burgess Meredith as milquetoast Kansas farm boy Pee Wee Williams and Ronald Reagan as an eagle-eye lieutenant who thought Private Pee Wee might have bigger things in store for him than aircraft maintenance. “Pee Wee,” Reagan asks, “how’d you like to go to gunnery school?” In short order, Pee Wee would be molded into an ice-veined, steel-eyed warrior—“one of aviation’s mightiest little men … a Galahad of gunnery”—and then shipped off to the Pacific to serve on the flight crew headed by that same eagle-eyed lieutenant. By the time the film ended, Pee Wee had won the Distinguished Service Medal, and potential recruits had been reminded that “the fire from your guns is the fire of freedom.”

Rear Gunner worked on a variety of levels. American audiences knew nothing of Reagan’s trepidation about actual flying, but they’d seen his previous turns as a hero pilot in movies such as Secret Service of the Air, International Squadron, and Desperate Journey. And publicity for Rear Gunner noted that both Meredith and Reagan were active-duty lieutenants: “Perhaps they were more than acting their parts in the film—perhaps they were living them.”

Reagan really never did more than act the part of a combat soldier. He spent his entire war at that Culver City back lot, with Hollywood’s once and future stars, directors, and producers, helping the 1,200-man-strong motion-picture unit churn out more than four hundred training, recruiting, or booster films. He never busted out to fly combat missions like Clark Gable or Jimmy Stewart; he never got a chance to fight the Japs like his actor friend Eddie Albert did. But Reagan took pride in the fact that he’d done what was asked of him, and he’d taken to heart one of Fum-Poo’s central missions: to keep reminding the folks at home (the ones who could buy the war bonds, for instance) that the United States and its military power was all that stood between our freedoms and the maniacal world-enslaving designs of Adolf Hitler and his Japanese allies. Nearly forty years later, he’d hauled himself into the White House by reminding the folks at home that US military might was all that stood between our freedoms and the maniacal world-enslaving designs of the Soviets and their energetic and ruthless agent in the Western Hemisphere, Fidel Castro.

By the time Reagan became president he’d long since come to understand that good enemies (even welfare queens and tinhorn dictators) make good politics. The two previous Oval Office inhabitants had made plenty of hay with war metaphors, but they never really set up suitably threatening or concrete antagonists. Gerald Ford had declared war on the high cost of living (“Whip Inflation Now!”) … and lost the presidency. His successor, Jimmy Carter, had declared war on our national dependence on foreign oil. Carter’s renowned 1979 “malaise speech”—the one in which he never uttered the word “malaise”—is little remembered as what it actually was: a call to arms for fixing our nation’s dire energy future. “Beginning this moment, this nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977—never,” President Carter said in his nationally televised address to the nation. “The generation-long growth in our dependence on foreign oil will be stopped dead in its tracks right now and then reversed as we move through the 1980s, for I am tonight setting the further goal of cutting our dependence on foreign oil by one-half by the end of the next decade.” Carter was going to use all the weapons at his disposal: import quotas, public investment in coal, solar power and alternative fuel, and—drum-roll, please—“a bold conservation program” where “every act of energy conservation … is more than just common sense; I tell you it is an act of patriotism.” He tried to make it all sound as martial as possible: “Just as a similar synthetic rubber corporation helped us win World War II, so will we mobilize American determination and ability to win the energy war.… We must deal with the energy problem on a war footing … the moral equivalent of war … a fundamental threat to American democracy … the threat … the crisis … threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America … a clear and present danger to our nation.” Name-checking the world wars repeatedly, Carter declared that “energy … can also be the standard around which we rally!”

But somehow Carter’s “battlefield of energy” never really filled up with eager American combatants. It just never felt like anybody was going to be draped in glory for taking public transportation, or carpooling, or turning down the thermostat and wearing a cardigan.

Lost in President Carter’s ten-car pileup of war metaphors was a line that probably should have been his headline that night: that America was “a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world.” But Jimmy Carter did not try to sell that; instead, he declared a “war” on the energy crisis … and lost the presidency.

The founders were onto something with their cautions about that whole military vainglory thing. There really is nothing that approaches war’s political potency. Carter proved this point in failure—shouting into the void that something other than a war, if maybe you called it a war, “can rekindle our sense of unity, our confidence in the future, and give our nation and all of us individually a new sense of purpose.” No, it can’t. Or at least, no, it hasn’t.

In 1895, at a time when America had enjoyed peace for more than a generation, a fifty-five-year-old Massachusetts judge named Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. delivered a Memorial Day speech called “A Soldier’s Faith” that, as well as anything before or since, described Americans’ attraction to war. It’s not just the mistake of kings—even in a government that is by, for, and of the people, the people’s own understandable, emotional inclination to war can make it hard for a country to remain peaceable.

“War, when you are at it, is horrible and dull. It is only when time has passed that you see that its message was divine.… In this snug, over-safe corner of the world we need it that we may realize that our comfortable routine is no eternal necessity of things, but merely a little space of calm in the midst of the tempestuous, untamed streaming of the world, and in order that we may be ready for danger.” Thousands of citizens had assembled to hear Holmes’s Memorial Day oration, but the judge was speaking mainly for the benefit of the stooped and grizzled old soldiers in the crowd that day.

More than thirty years earlier, Holmes had fought in the Civil War, in what remain, to this day, America’s most terrifying and costly battles. He was shot through the neck and left to die at Antietam, where nearly twenty thousand of his countrymen were killed or wounded in a single afternoon. Nearly two years later, he was still up and in the fight. In the Wilderness campaign, he saw a man instantaneously decapitated by flying shrapnel and noted in his diary the carnage at the Bloody Angle: “the dead of both sides lay piled in the trenches 5 or 6 deep—wounded often writhing under the superincumbent dead.” And only then, aged twenty-three years and two months, did Holmes finally choke on the blood. He walked away from that war before the outcome was decided, with little concern for which side won or lost. “I have felt for sometime,” he wrote to his parents in May 1864, “that I didn’t any longer believe in this being a duty.”

But as he delivered “A Soldier’s Faith” thirty years later, Oliver Wendell Holmes had been enveloped by the practiced amnesia of a willful romantic. “It is not well for soldiers to think much about wounds,” he said that day. “Sooner or later we fall, but meantime it is for us to fix our eyes upon the point to be stormed, and to get there if we can.” After walking away from his own war when he lost his sense of its purpose, decades later, Holmes made that purpose war itself; war, regardless of its cause, as its own reward, its own sublime virtue, an inevitable consequence simply of life as man, and man’s need for a reason to need one another. He continued:

As long as man dwells upon the globe, his destiny is battle. I do not know what is true. I do not know the meaning of the universe. But in the midst of doubt, in the collapse of creeds, there is one thing I do not doubt, that no man who lives in the same world with most of us can doubt, and that is that the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has no notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.…

Perhaps it is not vain for us to tell the new generation what we learned in our day, and what we still believe. That the joy of life is living, is to put out all one’s powers as far as they will go; that the measure of power is obstacles overcome; to ride boldly at what is in front of you, be it fence or enemy; to pray, not for comfort, but for combat; to keep the soldier’s faith against the doubts of civil life, more besetting and harder to overcome than all the misgivings of the battlefield, and to remember that duty is not to be proved in the evil day, but then to be obeyed unquestioning; to love glory more than the temptations of wallowing ease.…

We have shared the incommunicable experience of war; we have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top.

If the eighty years that followed Holmes’s ode to soldiering is any guide, Americans share his suspicion of peace and his conviction that battle can be a source of existential meaning and personal uplift. This country developed a serious war jones. Even a bookish and bespectacled Princeton professor named Woodrow Wilson cheered “the young men who prefer dying in the ditches of the Philippines to spending their lives behind the counters of a dry-goods store in our eastern cities. I think I should prefer that myself.” We’d got in the habit of being at war, and not against some economic crisis, but real war—big, small, hot, cold, air, sea, or ground—and against real enemies. Sometimes they’d attacked us, and sometimes we’d gone out of our way to find them. It had got to the point that being “at peace everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might” was a condition to be downplayed, a losing political message, as if being at peace, in our “snug, over-safe corner of the world,” made us edgy, as if we no longer knew, absent an armed conflict, how to be our best selves.