The War Machine, Pt. 2: The Cold War, JFK, and the Bipartisan Consensus
Luckily for the profiteers, in the years following the end of the war, they didn’t have to look far. The Nazis and Japanese had been defeated, but almost immediately the newly minted competing superpower made up of the Soviet Union and its satellite states was neatly slotted into the void. Europe and specifically Germany was drawn up along battle lines, and the Truman Doctrine in 1947 with its stated aim being to reduce the Soviet influence around the world began the Cold War that would last for the next four decades and come to dominate almost all US policy decisions.
During this period, the US of course engaged in several full-scale wars in mostly third-world countries like Korea and Vietnam, but it was the omnipresent Soviet threat that was behind all foreign policy decisions and drew a line in the sand that no mainstream politician would dare cross. McCarthyism was the law of the land, where acts as benign as advocating for collective bargaining could land you permanently blacklisted from society or even imprisoned and labeled a traitor. In this climate, no politician who had any interest in continuing his or her career would even dare think about questioning the need for an immense military expenditure. After all, the Soviets had nukes and could attack at any time, they were already doing it in Afghanistan, Vietnam, Cuba, and elsewhere the story went. The US needed to be prepared to defend this imminent threat.
Of course, we now know decades later that much of this political climate was manufactured hysteria. The much bandied-about supposed “missile gap”, the suggestion that the US lagged far behind the Soviets in their nuclear weapons stockpile, was objectively false. It was the Americans in fact whose constant churning out of weapons produced an arsenal that could annihilate the entire world several times over that had the far larger arms reserve. In terms of foreign policy, the idea that the Soviets were whispering Stalinist propaganda in the ears of third world leaders, attempting to build a shadow empire, we now know was largely overstated. As Vincent Bevins discusses in The Jakarta Method, his exploration of the US’s brutal anti-communist activities in Latin America and Asia in the mid-century, more often than not the Soviet government offered nothing more than nominal support and at most simply a trade partnership to third world countries instituting socialist reforms. The idea that they were forcing a strict adherence to a Stalinist decree was wildly overstated; in fact, records show that in many cases governments attempting to forge stronger ties with the USSR were often rebuked by Moscow to avoid angering the US. And when the Berlin Wall finally fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union dissolved two years later, many commentators acknowledged that the collapse probably would have occurred years before had it not been for the US’s constant agitation creating a unifying effect amongst the Soviet people.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before we get to the years following the Soviet Union’s demise, we need to back-peddle a bit to the 60s and talk about what happened when a president tried to disrupt this status quo. I am of course talking about the sex-crazed Irishman himself, Mr. John F. Kennedy. Despite only being president for less than three years, perhaps no politician has been as debated, misremembered, and over-analyzed as the Catholic scion from Massachusetts. I’ll leave a summary of JFK’s life to his many biographers, but a few aspects of his pre-presidency life are notable and underdiscussed enough that I want to touch on them in the context of this story.
Everyone is aware of the immense privilege from which the Kennedy clan sprang from, propped up by Joe Kennedy’s staggering wealth, and it was this wealth that allowed JFK and his brother Bobby the chance to lead a worldly, cosmopolitan, globe-trotting young adult life. As a young congressman from Massachusetts, he undertook a 1951 trip to scores of countries outside the western world, including India, Egypt, Israel, Japan, Indonesia, and others, meeting with enterprising leaders of these emerging nations like Nasser and Nehru and allowing him to see the world from an angle almost never afforded to an American lawmaker, whose knowledge of the non-Western world came only from official McCarthy-era US-approved sources. This experience led JFK to develop a somewhat anti-imperialist outlook that concluded the US as a conquering force had failed the people of these countries and that throwing untold amounts of money at a war machine would never bring peace and prosperity to the world.
This wouldn’t have seemed apparent to those observing at the time, however. In the brutally narrow 1960 election in which Kennedy only triumphed thanks to some less-than-scrupulous means in several states, JFK ran against Nixon as a tried-and-true cold warrior promising a hardline approach towards the Soviet threat and specifically Cuba. In speeches and debates he blasted the Vice President on not doing enough to contain Castro’s rising popularity and closeness with Russia. And once he was president, to an outside observer, his nominal support for war in Vietnam and undertaking of the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961 seemed to paint him as nothing more than another link in the continuous chain of US presidents backing up the military apparatus in the fight against communism.
But that belies the true story of what was actually going on behind the scenes. Despite running as a Cuba and Russia hawk, once he became president, JFK quietly began the process of attempting to normalize relations with both countries. The disastrous Bay of Pigs operation had been unwillingly thrust upon him by the prior Eisenhower admin and the Allen Dulles-led CIA, and it took Kennedy’s maneuvering against the prodding of his military and foreign policy advisors to scale it back from a full-on ground invasion of Cuba.
In the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, where the young president saw firsthand just how close the world had come to nuclear annihilation, Kennedy had sent emissaries to the Castro government to begin the formal process of ending hostilities between the neighboring countries, much to the fury of the many hardliners in his cabinet who wanted only a full-scale military overthrow of the Castro regime. And despite his nominal opposition to the communist threat in Vietnam which would be elevated to a full-on American invasion by his successor LBJ, there is numerous pieces of evidence to suggest JFK was wholly opposed to any form of American involvement in the region and had announced his intention to never send American troops to join the fight. In short, Kennedy was beginning to lay the seeds towards moving to a different type of American foreign policy, one that prioritized peace and cooperation over military might.
This all might seem relatively quaint to a modern-day leftist. After all, JFK was no closet red who wanted to significantly shake up the American capitalist system. But he represented the first time a US president had attempted to break in a major way from the business-as-usual style of American military imperialism. As his final few speeches indicate in the last months of his life, JFK had begun to publicly espouse that peace was more important than any form of the American empire and had even started to take some steps to put this talk into practice. He fired Allen Dulles and began to openly rail against the CIA for the mess they had created with the Bay of Pigs and other covert operations, threatening to reign in their previously unchecked power and mammoth budget. He cut off government funding for the US-backed Cuban exile mercenary groups and publicly rebuked their attempts to drum up furor via media appearances, angering scores of heavily armed and dangerous paramilitary goons. He met with Indonesian president Sukarno in 1961 and tacitly expressed support for his “Third-World Movement”, an attempt by the leaders of developing nations to forge a path for their countries independent of Western imperialism.
And a more significant event was on the horizon: the looming 1964 election. Having weathered the Missile Crisis, Bay of Pigs, and other disasters that would’ve doomed a less dedicated politician, JFK was on the precipice of being a second-term president with nothing to lose, able to forge a new path for America without the worry of having to win an election against a hardline conservative blasting him for being too weak on communism. The groundwork was being laid for the enterprising president to wrench back the reigns of his government and shake up the system.
And so they killed him.
There’s no more widely and wildly debated conspiracy theory in the world than the question of what actually happened with JFK’s assassination, but by this point all but the most naïve of us have to acknowledge that the official line of a single, crazed Marxist acting alone is almost definitely nonsense. The specifics can be and have been debated endlessly, we’ll probably never know the full story, but from what we can gleam, all signs point to the idea that JFK was killed by some combination of the CIA working with organized crime and/or Cuban exile mercenaries in retaliation for his attempts at limiting their power and to prevent any further change of course. There is a debate as to whether JFK really possessed enough of a threat to the American military industrial complex to warrant killing him, with detractors pointing to his hardline stance against Cuba in the 1960 election and nominal support for intervention in Vietnam.
But it can’t be overstated just how radical of a departure Kennedy’s gradual turn against his own military apparatus was from anything that preceded it. All signs pointed to JFK wanting to do everything he could to avoid sending in ground troops to Vietnam. Having talked down the suggestion of a full-on marine invasion of Cuba, he seemed to be moving forward diplomatically with the Castro regime, putting the idea of any sort of future military intervention out of the question. And once the US and Cuba had normalized relations, it would only be a matter of time before JFK and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev brokered an agreement, potentially ending the Cold War and preventing any future hot war conflicts.
In short, the war machine was in danger of grinding to a halt. And once that happens, it’s only a matter of time before people start to question why such a massive portion of our GDP is being sectioned off for the military. In this context, it’s painfully apparent why Kennedy posed such a threat and why the powers that be conspired to kill him, sending a message to every future president what would happen if they ever dared to step out of line again. Fidel Castro, who despite their clashes came to admire the young Catholic president, upon hearing the news of JFK’s death reportedly said to those around him: “Es una mala noticia.” (“This is bad news.”) The top lawman in the country, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, was painfully aware how powerless he was to thoroughly investigate the murder of his own brother. It’s now widely believed that RFK planned to use the office of the presidency to reopen the investigation, but before he could he was killed under equally gruesome and mysterious circumstances.
One must only look at the actions of the next few decades’ worth of presidents to see whether any of them ever got the idea to again cross the military/intelligence sector. Kennedy’s immediate successor LBJ was the most progressive and transformative president domestically since FDR, instituting Medicare and Medicaid and signing the Civil Rights Act. But in matters of foreign policy, he was as hawkish as could be, elevating Vietnam to an armed conflict with all the atrocities that entailed and slamming the door shut on any notion of cooperation with the USSR or Cuba. Nixon is credited with ending the Vietnam War but only after a disastrous elevation led to such an increase in American casualties that the domestic support for the war had all but dried up.
As an aside, Nixon is an interesting case. Today written off as a hysterically paranoid despot, Nixon was acutely aware of how little control he actually exercised over his government and did in fact make attempts to dig into the true story of the Kennedy assassination. Nixon probably represented the last time anyone in the executive branch even somewhat attempted to seize back control of the government but was discouraged due to what he found. Some presidents like Jimmy Carter gestured at notions of global peace and avoided starting any all-out armed conflicts but still quietly backed the US imperialist project around the world and were powerless to reign in the scope of the military and intelligence apparatus that now operated globally, often without any oversight or public awareness.
Carter and his successor Reagan offered a glimpse at the new model of doing business. The all-out boots on the ground/declarations of war style of military interventions were dialed back, preventing the American body count from stacking up too high and lessoning the chance that opposition to the war project would take hold in too large a swath of the population. Instead, the US quietly continued to pour money and resources into groups and regimes around the world that promised Washington they were fighting communism in their countries. In Indonesia, Sukarno was viciously deposed by a US-backed anti-communist movement, ushering in a genocide that killed upwards of a million-plus Indonesians and all but obliterating the promise and hope of the Third World Movement.
This victory was so significant amongst its orchestrators in Washington that it would become something of an open secret in the years following how the disaster of Vietnam seemed to matter less in the wake of the brutally effective clamp-down in Indonesia. The “Jakarta Method” as it was called, would be replicated all over the world, where in countless countries like Brazil, Iran, Guatemala, El Salvador and more, the US would provide arms, training, money, and other forms of support to anyone willing to clamp down on a perceived socialist threat, all under the guise of fighting the evil tentacle influence of the greedy Soviet Union, despite the majority of these countries having only the vaguest ties to the Eastern European nation. Time and time again a democratically elected socialist or even just a liberal-leaning government would be overthrown in a military coup, replaced by a despotic strongman who promised fealty to American business interests, all while the US not only turned a blind eye but actively supported the human rights atrocities these tyrants were carrying out.
These operations were carried out on a scale far more quietly than anything like what had occurred in Vietnam, and so they managed to remain mostly out of the public eye. Before the era of social media and 24/7 worldwide news, Americans had only a vague awareness of these countries a world away much less actively followed the nuances of their political turmoil. Communism was bad, so it was good when a communist or socialist government was overthrown. That was the line, no need to overthink it. The only times this style of doing business managed to bubble over into a domestic controversy were in certain instances when a high-profile blunder managed to catch the American government with egg on its face, such as the Iran Hostage Crisis and Iran-Contra. However, the ramifications to such scandals were varied at best. The hostage crisis cost Carter his re-election bid but did nothing to change the course in American foreign policy, ushering in an even harder-line anti-communist in Reagan. The Iran-Contra scandal was swept under the rug after some initial investigations with almost no one involved suffering any legal or career consequences. Today, its chief architect Oliver North remains a constant fixture in cable news political commentary, even serving as the president of the NRA in 2018.
Bush Sr. and Clinton represent an interesting time in American history, one that often seems forgotten in between Vietnam and 9/11. HW did preside over a full-on US military action in the 1991 Gulf War (with numerous atrocities carried out by the American military coalition, a fact that has almost been completely forgotten), one of the first major examples of such since Vietnam. But the blitzkrieg speed at which the entire event transpired, wrapping up in barely more than a month, prevented it from having too lasting of an impression on the American populace.
And when the 1991 dissolution of the USSR brought about an end to the Cold War, people rightfully wondered, what now? For almost 50 years every single American political decision had been made within the lens of fighting the Soviets, and now, almost overnight, they were gone, leaving only America standing as the lone superpower. Commentators began remarking that we had reached “The End of History”, where since America no longer had any major threats, they could rule the world in a peaceful regime of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism. Policymakers, even those on conservative sides, openly mulled the reduction of the defense budget. HW Bush promised a “Peace Dividend” where military spending would be redirected to other more pressing needs. Donald Rumsfeld, today remembered as the most hawkish of war mongers, openly advocated for a need to trim the excess of the military apparatus and make it more efficient and streamlined.
And then of course there’s the famous 1991 quote from noted war criminal Colin Powell about running out of villains. It’s rare when a political figure puts their policy reasonings in such plain English, but that’s exactly what Powell did. America really had run out of enemies. Hitler and Stalin were decades in the ground. Saddam Hussein had been beaten back by the might of the American empire (the future Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice even wrote her PhD dissertation on how if the Iraqi despot managed to somehow acquire nuclear arms, he’d be rather easy to contain and therefore posed little threat). Russia had collapsed on itself. The only thorns in the side of the US that remained were longtime foes Castro and Kim-Il Sung, but given that both controlled countries roughly the size of Maine and by the early 90s had been dormant for years, they had been more or less forgotten on the global scale.
With the lack of a unifying enemy able to drum up support around the incumbent HW Bush, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton rode into the White House on the back of anti-tax furor and seemed far more interested in waging war on the inner cities of America than any foreign concerns. For a moment, it seemed the US might actually be turning away from the military interventionist approach that had guided it for almost 60 years, not because of any crusading maverick president wrenching back the reigns of his government, but just due to the passage of time.
Then came September 11th, 2001. And the country truly would never be the same.