The Violent American Century: War and Terror since World War II by John W. Dower (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017; 184 pages)Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) was livid. “In the dead of night,” the California Democrat wrote on Twitter in July, House Speaker Paul Ryan did something “underhanded and undemocratic.” He stripped out her bipartisan amendment to repeal the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force against al-Qaeda from the Defense Appropriations bill. Congress passed the AUMF three days after 9/11 to give the president the authority to go after al-Qaeda, which had attacked America on that crystal-clear morning in September. There was only one member of Congress to cast a lonely vote against the resolution: Barbara Lee.In what can only be described as prophetic, Lee warned at the time of the AUMF vote that “we must be careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target.” She likened the authorization to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that got America bogged down in Vietnam. But she wasn’t worried only about a new war’s impact on the United States and its military. “If we rush to launch a counterattack,” she said, “we run too great a risk that women, children, and other noncombatants will be caught in the crossfire.” Lee closed her speech with a line that should haunt the consciences of all Americans: “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.”
In the past 16 years, the AUMF has allowed the unleashing of America’s signature high-tech violence across the Greater Middle East, with no end in sight. Since 9/11, the United States has bombed at least seven countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, and Syria. Each and every time George W. Bush or Barack Obama authorized the use of force in another country outside of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, they claimed the AUMF as their authority, even though one of the targets of its strikes, the Islamic State, couldn’t have attacked America on 9/11, since the group didn’t exist then.
While events have proven Lee correct, she was too kind to her fellow Americans and their representatives in Congress. Americans have always engaged in the evil they say they deplore. As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian John W. Dower documents in his terse volume The Violent American Century: War and Terror since World War II, the American capacity for bloodletting is bottomless and its appetite for destruction insatiable.
Dower’s slim volume takes aim at the notion that we should take heart from the indication that human violence is on the decline since World War II. The most influential of the “declinists,” as Dower calls them, is Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. In his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Pinker goes as far as to call the Cold War “the Long Peace” and the years after the Berlin War fell down “the New Peace.” Dower will have none of that. “This so-called postwar peace was, and still is, saturated in blood and wracked with suffering,” he writes.
But what really rankles Dower is the conventional wisdom behind why the world has experienced such “peace” since the end of World War II: the absence of war between great powers, principally the United States and the Soviet Union. Dower’s irritation stems from two related reasons. In America, the belief remains solid that the world didn’t end in a thermonuclear ball of fire because of the “wisdom, virtue, and firepower of U.S. ‘peacekeeping.’’’ And such belief, writes Dower, “obscures the degree to which the United States bears responsibility for contributing to, rather than impeding, militarization and mayhem after 1945.”
The rest of the Dower’s book is a concise history of how a nation that emerged from World War II largely unscathed became “essentially bipolar — hubristic and overwhelmingly powerful by all material measures, yet fearful and insecure.” Military planners, according to Dower, exploited this paradox as a way to ensure the national-security state became a permanent fixture in American life while convincing the general population that empire equaled safety. There’s nothing really new here in Dower’s postwar history that leftists such as Noam Chomsky, conservatives such as Andrew Bacevich, and libertarians such as Robert Higgs haven’t explored in greater detail. But the value of Dower’s book is its length — it’s a perfect introduction to the dark heart of American foreign and military policy since 1945 — and what he chooses to emphasize, namely the imperial mindset that pursues U.S. hegemony at the risk of wiping out humanity.
With nuclear diplomacy now in the hands of the Trump administration, Dower offers a necessary reminder that U.S. nuclear policy almost destroyed the world more than once and continues to fuel nuclear-arms races across the world. During the mid 1980s, the nuclear stockpile of warheads between the United States and the Soviet Union exceeded 60,000, more than enough to wipe out humanity multiple times over. As the American nuclear strategist Albert Wohlstetter wrote in 1959, the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a “delicate balance of terror.” Three years later, that balance was almost upended as the nuclear enemies almost pushed their respective buttons over the Cuban Missile Crisis.
And the close calls didn’t end there, Dower reminds us. It’s nothing sort of a miracle that an accident or human mistake didn’t end in nuclear oblivion. “In a jittery world of massive-retaliation groupthink,” writes Dower, “major alarms about a possible Soviet attack were triggered by a flock of birds, sunlight reflected off clouds, the rising moon, a training tape mistakenly inserted in the warning system, and a faulty computer chip costing forty-six cents.”
In behavior that can only be described as shocking the conscience, American nuclear planners after the close call in Cuba wanted adversaries to believe U.S. leaders were crazy enough to use nuclear weapons tactically. In October 1969, the Nixon White House developed a short-lived plan named Operation Duck Hook, whereby Washington would lead Hanoi to believe the unbelievable — that Richard Nixon would nuke North Vietnam to end the war. “They’ll believe any threat of force that Nixon makes because it’s Nixon…. I call it the Madman Theory, Bob,” one of Nixon’s top cronies, H.R. Haldeman, recalled the president telling him. “I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war.”
Such irresponsibility in strategy led some of the nuclear priesthood to confess their sins and renounce their immoral beliefs and actions. Dower focuses on two men, Gen. Lee Butler, the last commander of Strategic Air Command, and William Perry, the secretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. Both of them looked back on their careers with regret. Butler noted how the nuclear doctrine of mutually assured destruction evolved into the use of nuclear weapons as conventional weapons, including nuclear land and sea mines as well as “warheads on artillery shells that could be launched from jeeps.”
Perry, similarly, looked back on the conception of nukes as conventional weapons in dismay, “as though they were simply organic evolutions of prenuclear arms,” and decried it as “extraordinarily reckless.” According to Perry, “We acted as if the world had not changed with the emergence of the nuclear age, the age in which the world had changed as never before.” Butler, for his part, wrote that “mankind escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of diplomatic skill, blind luck and divine intervention, probably the latter in great proportion.”
Unfortunately, nuclear planners haven’t learned the lessons of Butler and Perry. In the unending irony of Obama’s presidency, the commander in chief who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, mainly for his work on nuclear disarmament, committed an estimated $1 trillion over the next 30 years to modernize America’s nuclear capability. As Dower wisely observes, “The ceaseless U.S. quest to maintain massive ‘technological asymmetry’ militarily is guaranteed to keep arms races of every sort going.” Washington continues to pursue this course, even though the risk of nuclear war has only increased as more countries join the nuclear club, which now stands at nine, and the bellicose rhetoric between Pyongyang and Washington intensifies.
It’s partly because of continued American interventionism and aggression, especially under the 2001 AUMF, that nuclear proliferation continues. One of the lessons that North Korea learned from the Iraq War and America’s intervention in Libya was that nuclear warheads are the only defense against U.S.-led efforts at regime change. The Libya case study is the most instructive: dictator Muammar Qaddafi gave up his nuclear weapons program in 2003 and ended up sodomized by a stick and with a bullet through his head after U.S. bombing helped rebels overthrow his regime in 2011. As one North Korean official put it before the U.S.-NATO bombing of Libya began, “It is now being fully exposed before the world that Libya’s ‘nuclear dismantlement,’ much touted by the U.S. in the past, turned out to be a mode of aggression, a way of coaxing the victim with sweet words to disarm itself and then to swallow it up by force.”
No one in the U.S. national-security apparatus, or among the populace, should be surprised that Kim Jong-un is intent on perfecting an intercontinental ballistic missile that could threaten the United States with a nuclear warhead. He made the only rational move to protect his dictatorship from U.S.-led regime change. Or as Donald Trump said, correctly, Kim is “a pretty smart cookie.”
In a world suddenly concerned about nuclear catastrophe, Dower’s emphasis on America’s responsibility for nuclear proliferation and recklessness feels prescient and worth remembering. And for all the data marshalled by the declinists to show a decrease in global violence — no matter how often that bloodshed can be traced back to U.S. shores since the end of World War II — it takes only one frenzied decision to trigger the extinction of the species. So as we watch helplessly on cable news as one megalomaniac stares down another, Dower wants Americans to know this: This is an existential nightmare of our own making.