The Long View 2006-09-07: The Court Historian; The Creepy-Crawlies; The Abandoned City

   Mohammad Khatami  By Ali Rafiei -, CC BY 4.0,


Mohammad Khatami

By Ali Rafiei -, CC BY 4.0,

In retrospect, I think I agree with Mohammad Khatami that American policy in Iraq in the first half of the 2000s led to increased terrorism and instability. John Reilly was often harsh on Iran and Iranian politicians in his blog, and this post is no exception. To be fair to John, Iran was and is a patron of Hezbollah, a player in the bloody factional politics of the Middle East that is considered a terrorist organization by the US and EU. And of course there was the 1979 Tehran Embassy thing, and Iran really was working hard on a nuclear program.

On the other hand, important men in the Iranian version of Shia Islam tend to have philosophical educations heavy on Plato and Aristotle, much like Catholic priests. The first female Fields medalist, Maryam Mirzakhani, was from Iran. Before the embassy takeover and Iran sponsoring attacks on Israel via proxy after the Israeli invasion of south Lebanon, Iran was the traditional American ally in the region. Hell, pursuing a nuclear program in the hopes of either getting real military independence, like Israel, Pakistan, and India, or major concessions, like North Korea, seems like a winning geopolitical strategy to me.

Khatami, in particular, probably didn't deserve John's ire, but I also don't think we should pretend that the Twelver branch of Shia Islam that is predominant in Iran would be popular with the US public if they knew what it was or what it meant, or that Iran wants things that the US foreign policy establishment wants.

I do suspect that we could reach some kind of reasonable compromise with Iran, but to be honest I don't think much of the opinions of most US middle east foreign policy experts either. I want things my own countrymen [at least the ones who talk about it all the time] don't appear to want, like staying out of land wars in West Asia.

The Court Historian; The Creepy-Crawlies; The Abandoned City


Personnel Selections for the McCain Administration are perhaps premature. Nonetheless, correspondent DD sends this advisory from ABC News that Niall Ferguson has entered the circle of the senator's advisers. This is newsworthy, we are told, because Ferguson Compares America to British Empire:

Sept. 4, 2006 — - A recent New York Times article about John McCain's growing "kitchen cabinet," contained a piece of information that might have been meaningless to many American readers, but resonated strongly with most British ones.

According to a McCain aide, the article said, one of the senator's unofficial advisors as he ponders a possible run for the White House is the British-born Harvard historian Niall Ferguson. ... London-based columnist Johann Hari... wrote that Ferguson had been positioning himself to become "court historian to the imperial American hard right."

The New York Times article, by the way is from August 21: McCain Mines Elite of G.O.P. For 2008 Team.

Ferguson is most notable, at least to my mind, for his methodological use of alternative history, which he explains in Virtual History. His views on the relevance of the British imperial precedent are explained in his book, Empire: The Rise and Fall of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power. As I remarked in that review, his chief analytical blindspot is that he does not distinguish between a national empire and a universal state.

Meanwhile, former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami is touring the United States and speaking at venues from the National Cathedral to the Kennedy School of Government. He is regaling the natives to this effect:

But the former president, a moderate who was succeeded last year by hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has already made news since his Aug. 30 arrival, attacking the Bush administration's handling of the war on terrorism while hinting there was room for agreement with Tehran on recognizing Israel and stabilizing Iraq. "As America claims to be fighting terrorism, it implements policies that cause the intensification of terrorism and institutionalized violence," Mr. Khatami, an Islamic cleric, said in a speech to a North American Muslim convention in Chicago over the weekend.

I have thought about this kind of apologetics for years, and I finally have a suitable reply. It's based on the game-theory notion that you can force your opponent to take an action you want by convincing him that you cannot control your own actions. Thus, in a game of highway chicken, for instance, you can make your opponent swerve by ostentatiously tossing your own steering wheel out your driver's side window. Another way to do it is convince your opponent that you cannot be swayed by rational argument. Thus, a reply to President Khatami might go:

"Yes, we are very unreasonable. What will you do to mollify us?"

The Persian's principal stop, by the way, will be at a conference of the Alliance of Civilizations, a UN-sponsored body of which he is a founding member. In fact, he seems to be speaking before every creepy-crawly Islamist front-organization in America. Should the pro-Islamist network expand, will its progressive nodes have second thoughts when they realize just how implacable the Islamists are on culture-war issues? That has not happened in Europe.

This just in: it should make the next few weeks even more interesting:

Diplomats at the United Nations were sent into disarray yesterday when President Ahmadinejad of Iran declared that he intended to attend the General Assembly of the world body on September 19 and to debate his country's nuclear program with President Bush, who is due to address the Assembly that day.

* * *

Those readers hoping for civilizational collapse (and I know some of you are) should take a look at these images of an abandoned city in Russia. This sort of thing happens in the American Midwest, too, but rarely with so much waste of concrete. Note that there are none of the elements that routinely turn up in fictional treatments of this kind of thing. There is no "back to the land" efflorescence of neo-peasantry; neither is there any tendency to local control. The people just packed up and moved to other cities.

* * *

Yes, the Democrats are making overtures to the religious vote, as we see from the Faithful Democrats site. It's not a bad effort, though one must wonder who the audience is. In any case, the problem with asking "what would Jesus do" in a political context is that Jesus routinely responded to peace-and-justice questions with wisecracks.

* * *

You already knew I would link to this item:

NORWICH (Reuters) - Many people have experienced the phenomenon of receiving a telephone call from someone shortly after thinking about them -- now a scientist says he has proof of what he calls telephone telepathy.

Rupert Sheldrake, whose research is funded by the respected Trinity College, Cambridge, said on Tuesday he had conducted experiments that proved that such precognition existed for telephone calls and even e-mails.

Sheldrake seems to produce nice, testable claims, but does anybody ever test them?

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-08-26: A Walk on the Blind Side



Twelve years later, the HELLADS system is still in development. The press release cited by CNN below said it would operational by 2007. Hah. With the recent sabre-rattling between the United States and North Korea, both the utility of such a system for the US [defense against countries too poor to pursue MAD], and the fears of arms control experts [that such a system would allow the US to bully countries too poor to pursue MAD] are on display.

Also, Gordon Chang is still wrong. I get why John went on about it all the time, but it just keeps not happening.

On the gripping hand, John correctly noted in 2005 that America's imperial wars were being sustained by the martial enthusiasm of white Southerners and their diaspora. The quietly competent servants of empire tend to come from nowheresvilles like Modesto, CA.

A Walk on the Blind Side


The invention of the atomic bomb blind-sided the political system. The physics was never a secret, of course, and I gather that the Manhattan Project was not that much of a secret in the scientific community; still, one can understand why statesmen and the military did not think systematically about the issue until they had to. The strategic nuclear era necessarily began in great confusion. I cannot help but reflect, however, that we will have less excuse for surprise if reports like this turn out to mean all they imply:

The High Energy Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS), being designed by the Pentagon's central research and development agency, will weigh just 750 kg (1,650 lb) and measures the size of a large fridge...Dubbed the "HEL weapon" by its developers, a prototype capable of firing a mild one kilowatt (kW) beam has already been produced and there are plans to build a stronger 15-kW version by the end of the year...If everything goes according to plan, an even more powerful weapon producing a 150-kW beam and capable of knocking down a missile will be ready by 2007 for fitting onto aircraft.

By "missiles," this means tactical and air-to-air, rather than ICBMs. Even if the latter is not the case in the first instance, however, reliance on nuclear deterrence is becoming a worse and worse bet, even for the medium term. This is bad news for the states that have been beggaring themselves to acquire the minimum strategic warhead-and-missile package necessary to forestall regime change: think not just of North Korea and Iran, but Pakistan and Israel.

* * *

Health scares have been one of the defining features of the public life of my time. Someday I must compile a list of the innocuous substances, from saccharine to alar, that the media has said may be poisoning our precious bodily fluids. Anyway, here's a new medical witch hunt we can be sure will blow over in due course: Daydreaming activity linked to Alzheimer's.

The parts of the brain that young, healthy people use when daydreaming are the same areas that fail in people who have Alzheimer's disease, researchers reported on Wednesday in a study that may someday help in preventing or diagnosing the disease...The relationships are not clear and do not yet suggest that daydreaming is dangerous, but further study may shed light on the relationship, the study said.

Perhaps I am forgetting something, but I believe that the only life-style scare of this type that had any merit was for smoking. On the other hand, since I was always a dreamy sort of fellow, maybe the reason I can't remember is that the disease has struck already.

* * *

Meanwhile, in China, the prophecies of Gordon Chang seem ever more plausible. The New York Times reports in a piece entitled Land of 74,000 Protests (but Little Is Ever Fixed):

There is a growing uneasiness in the air in China, after months of increasingly bold protests rolling across the countryside....But the response by the Chinese authorities, a mixture of alarm and seeming disarray, is a clear indication that whatever is brewing here is being taken with utmost seriousness at the summit of power.

Again, the problem is that the Party is subversive of the State. The latter attempts to make reforms, but cannot do so without the full participation of civil society, which the Party blocks. This is interesting from several angles, the most speculative of which is that China and America have sometimes been oddly in sync. That was the case during the Taiping--Civil War era, as well as during the bogus but parallel "youth rebellions" of the 1960s. As for the impending disjuncture in American history, there are projections on the Left and Right.

* * *

Vietnam differed from Iraq in part because the army that was sent to fight there was selected coercively from sections of the population that had little enthusiasm for going there. This does not seem to be the case with Iraq: even the enlistment deficit seems to have been solved, at least temporarily. As Shots Across The Bow put it:

First time enlistments are running a bit behind, another product of a burgeoning economy, but re-enlistments, even from soldiers in combat zones, are running ahead of expectations.

This is another example of the Blue State -- Red State divide. It matters much less now than it did in the 1960s how much the Blue States oppose the war, since they are not being asked to fight it.

Sometimes I wonder: are the Blue States, like the EU, really trying to withdraw from history? Here is a description of Harvard University from H. G. Wells's The Shape of Things to Come. It was published in 1933, but the scene is supposed to take place in 1958, in a history where the Great Depression never ended. As is so often the case with speculative fiction written decades ago, it has become Alternative History:

The impression of Nicholson, the visitor, was one of an elegant impracticality. The simple graciousness of the life he could not deny, but it seemed to him also profoundly futile. He seems, however, to have concealed this opinion from the President [of Harvard University] and allowed him to talk unchallenged of how Harvard had achieved the ultimate purification and refinement of the Anglican culture, the blend of classicism and refined Christianity, with a graceful monarchist devotion.

Today, of course, the conversation would be about diversity and the international community, but the spirit of David Brooks's Bobos is not new.

* * *

Speaking of impending transitions, the ever-gothic Peggy Noonan advises planners to Think Dark:

The federal government is doing something right now that is exactly the opposite of what it should be doing. ...Right now the federal government is considering closing or consolidating hundreds of military bases throughout the U.S....Among the things we may face over the next decade, as we all know, is another terrorist attack on American soil. But let's imagine the next one has many targets, is brilliantly planned and coordinated. Imagine that there are already 100 serious terror cells in the U.S., two per state. ...On the day the big terrible thing happens there will of course be shock and chaos. People will feel the need for protection--for the feeling of protection and for the thing itself. They will want and need American troops nearby and they will want and need American military bases up and operating to help maintain some semblance of order.

I see the point. The problem is that federal military installations were not sited to restore public order in the event of a societal breakdown.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-08-10: Recusant Bears & Bulls Revise History in Extraterrestrial Standard Time

Since by happenstance this post comes up almost exactly 12 years later than it was first published, it manages to be entirely topical with regards to the bombing of Hiroshima. My contribution to the annual event is to remind you how nutty the Japanese government had become in the 1930s and 40s.

Recusant Bears & Bulls Revise History in Extraterrestrial Standard Time


Responding to growing popular outrage, the State of New Jersey is almost certainly going to approve a six-day bear hunt in December. Black bears have been reported in all 21 of the state's counties, including the counties that are 100% urban. These animals are dangerous, and people are tired of worrying about them: the environmentalists have been shouted down. Compare this to the situation in the Alps:

They climb trees, can weigh 300 kilos, and are capable of running up to 40mph. And thanks to a reintroduction programme, they are now roaming freely all over the Alps. The successful comeback of the brown bear, however, is causing consternation in northern Italy, Austria and Switzerland following several grizzly episodes - including the mauling of a prize yak, and the deaths of scores of sheep, goats and chickens...While some are warning of dangers, Francesco Borzaga, president of the Trentino branch of the World Wildlife Fund, has been trying to calm fears. "Bears are not considered dangerous to man. Living side by side is possible," he said. "It's a question of reciprocal respect."

Actually, it's a question of where you want to put the new bear-skin rug.

* * *

We should be grateful that the Space Shuttle Discovery landed without misadventure. We should also be appalled at the standards for a "successful mission." The first shuttle flight was in 1981; NASA is still getting the bugs out of a design that is 24 years old. It is as if, in 1951, engineers were still trying to perfect Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis.

This change in the pace of progress has been noted before. A young adult who was suddenly transported from 1900 to 1950 would have been bewildered by a walk down the street; more so, if he read a news magazine. In contrast, the change from 1950 to 2000 was largely a matter of degree. The same pattern obtained in the 19th century. The technology of everyday life in 1800 was not so different from that of Roman times. Fifty years later, the telegraph and steam technology had altered the scale of the world. The following 50 years were spent filling in the details.

* * *

Speaking of space, I see that Space Ventures, of Arlington, Virginia, is offering to send two tourists around the moon at the cost of $100 million each, using Russian technology. The company has already sent two tourists into orbit on a less pricey $20 million trip. And how big is the market?

The price of the two tickets, [Space Ventures spokesman] Mr. Anderson said, would pay for the costs of the Moon shot. His company's demographic research, he said, suggests that 500 to 1,000 people in the world can afford to do this.

"It's the same number of people who could afford to buy a $100 million yacht"...

Suppose that the price of manned spaceflight does fall dramatically in the near future. Those people who paid tens of millions of dollars to get there first are going to look awfully foolish.

* * *

The Shortest Way with Dissenters, says Christopher D. Morris in an August 9 opinion piece in The Boston GlobeStopping a judicial conflict of interest

[A] new threshold in church-state relations was crossed when Catholic bishops threatened to exclude Senator John Kerry from the Eucharist because of his support for Roe v. Wade...If they rescinded the threats made against Kerry, then Roberts would feel free to make his decision without the appearance of a conflict of interest, and Catholic politicians who support Roe v. Wade would gain renewed confidence in their advocacy. If the bishops repeated or confirmed their threats, the Senate Judiciary Committee should draft legislation calling for the automatic recusal of Catholic judges from cases citing Roe v. Wade as a precedent.

Well, I'm persuaded.

* * *

Meanwhile, in the New York Times, Michael Downing has this to say about Congress's plan to extend my favorite bad idea:

CONGRESS has an amazing new scheme to cut crime, automobile fatalities and energy consumption. There is one hitch. We have to stay in bed until sunrise during the first week of November - lights out, televisions and radios off and please stay away from that coffee maker...Congress has extended daylight saving time by four weeks: In 2007, our clocks will spring forward on the second Sunday of March and fall back on the first Sunday of November. And frankly, there may be another hitch or two in the plan.

First, the trick of shifting unused morning light to evening was intended to exploit long summer days, when sunrise occurs between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m. Standard Time - hours of daylight that do not exist during the short days of March and November.

Second, after nearly 100 years, daylight saving has yet to save us anything.

If we must adjust ourselves to changes in daylight, then we should do it with Spring and Autumn schedules in Standard Time. That would not even require legislation. A few executive orders would mandate that banks and federal offices open at 8:00 AM sometime after the vernal equinox and at 9:00 AM after the autumnal equinox. The rest of the country could fall into line, or not, as businesses and localities chose.

* * *

It's August in Germany, too, so Der Spiegel has the leisure to publish issues with scary cover art and apocalyptic themes, such as: "China Against USA: Struggle for the World of Tomorrow." You can visit the increasingly useless Der Spiegel site itself, but you are better off seeing the translation and commentary at David's Medienkritik.

I don't want to belabor the question of the Chinese Threat again here, though readers will have gathered that I capitalize the words ironically: I suspect that China is going to turn out to be Argentina with pandas. What I would like to remark on is a point raised on Medienkritik: the cover of Der Spiegel shows a dragon and an eagle in conflict, but where, asks Medienkritik, is the European bull?

The use of the bull (specifically, a white bull) as the heraldic symbol for Europe makes perfect sense in terms of mythology. On the other hand, in terms of appeal as a symbol, it ranks with the turkey, which Benjamin Franklin wanted to make the symbol of the United States. (And the Maple Leaf? It apparently dispirits many Canadians, but I always liked it.)

Anyway, if the EU is going to get anywhere, it needs a cooler animal.

* * *

On the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, The Weekly Standard has published a piece by Richard B. Frank on the collapse of the revisionist critique.

In the 1960s and '70s, many historians argued that the use of the bomb was militarily unnecessary, because the Japanese government was already trying to surrender on terms that the US later found acceptable, and that an invasion of Japan either was never seriously contemplated, or could have been accomplished with acceptable casualties. The real reason the bombs were dropped, many revisionists concluded, was as a demonstration to the Soviet Union. (I believe this was also the Party Line as early as 1948, but that's another story.)

This case was plausible, if not unanswerable, in light of the archival information that was available. Only in the 1990s were historians able to view the full range of diplomatic and military intercepts on which the Truman Administration made its decision. For instance:

[Ambassador Sato to the USSR] promptly wired back a cable [to the Inner Cabinet in Tokyo] that the editors of the "Magic" Diplomatic Summary made clear to American policymakers "advocate[s] unconditional surrender provided the Imperial House is preserved." Togo's reply, quoted in the "Magic" Diplomatic Summary of July 22, 1945, was adamant: American policymakers could read for themselves Togo's rejection of Sato's proposal--with not even a hint that a guarantee of the Imperial House would be a step in the right direction.

There is also an example of why Alternative History is not just a parlor game:

...Even with the full ration of caution that any historian should apply anytime he ventures comments on paths history did not take, in this instance it is now clear that the long-held belief that Operation Olympic [the invasion of Japan] loomed as a certainty is mistaken. Truman's reluctant endorsement of the Olympic invasion at a meeting in June 1945 was based in key part on the fact that the Joint Chiefs had presented it as their unanimous recommendation...With the Navy's withdrawal of support, the terrible casualties in Okinawa, and the appalling radio-intelligence picture of the Japanese buildup on Kyushu...[From mid-July onwards, Ultra intercepts exposed a huge military buildup on Kyushu...One intelligence officer commented that the Japanese defenses threatened "to grow to [the] point where we attack on a ratio of one (1) to one (1) which is not the recipe for victory."]...Olympic was not going forward as planned and authorized--period. But this evidence also shows that the demise of Olympic came not because it was deemed unnecessary, but because it had become unthinkable.

So, any American government would have done what the Truman Administration did. The question of the effect of the entry of the USSR into the war in the interval between Hiroshima and Nagasaki adds another layer of complexity, but it appears that nothing less than the combination was necessary to induce surrender. As Aragorn said, if this is victory, our hands are too small to hold it.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2005-03-15: Misguided Enterprises

John guessed in 2005 that California voters would eventually amend their state constitution to outlaw gay marriage, but at this point he didn't seem to think it especially likely the California Supreme Court, and eventually the United State Supreme Court would hold such amendments to violate the equal protection clause.

In 2005,  public opinion was against gay marriage, but the last twelve years have seen a large shift in public opinion in the US. [spreadsheet]

Gallup Poll Data on Gay Marriage

Gallup Poll Data on Gay Marriage

The two lines are different question sequences by Gallup. If the question about gay marriage was preceded by other questions on gay rights [I called that priming], then the number of people in favor when up. The rough trend seems to be about the same when the question was asked both ways, and the difference was only 2-5 percentage points, so that by itself isn't a huge factor, but it is a notable difference. Unfortunately, Gallup stopped bothering to do that.

Misguided Enterprises


As you know, yesterday a Superior Court judge in San Francisco held that marriage defined in heterosexual terms violates the constitution of the State of California. The decision began the weary process of appeals, which one suspects will result in an affirmation by the state Supreme Court of the Superior Court, along with the parallel campaign to amend the state constitution by popular referendum, which we know with a high level of certainty will override what the state courts say about the matter.

The interesting aspect to all this is that even this morning's New York Times reported the decision on page 16. This is one of those issues about which public discussion energizes the opposition. Why so? Because this is a fundamentally unpopular proposal that never found its euphemism. Abortion, for instance, was really part of a population-control strategy, but it developed a genuine popular following when it was presented as a privacy question. Gay marriage is about de-privileging heterosexuality. Essentially, the argument comes down to the assertion that the chief institution for regulating the relationship between the genders may not take account of gender. Since this use of equal-protection language is clearly insane, repeating it to a general public simply creates more opponents.

The sophisticated proponents of gay marriage have realized the difficulty. However, the activist network of proponents is engaged in self-expression rather than practical politics. There is no way to turn the network off. The progression to a federal constitutional definition of marriage in heterosexual terms now appears almost cybernetic.

* * *

Speaking of putting your brain on automatic pilot, there is an effort underway to ban an apparently successful clinical treatment for heart muscles because the preliminary lab work offends the biologists. This is another stem-cell story, but not of the sort to which we are accustomed. The stem cells come from the bone marrow of people who have suffered heart damage. According to yesterday's New York Times, fairly large clinical tests showed that these cells turned into heart muscle in the presence of damaged tissue. The patients were very sick, and the improvements were generally not spectacular. Still, almost all the patients improved some, and no one got sicker.

The problem is that the mouse studies that preceded the human trials have not been replicated, and not for lack of trying. The biologists want the FDA to pull the plug on further human tests; much less do they want the technique to become a standard treatment:

The Stanford researchers, who included Dr. Irving Weissman, a leading expert on the blood's stem cells, warned that until the science underlying the clinical trials was better understood, "these studies are premature and may in fact place a group of sick patients at risk."

I am reminded of what a French philosopher is supposed to have said: "Of course that works in practice, but does it work in theory?" I think we should also reflect that we would have heard glowing reports of these clinical trials, recalcitrant mice or no, if the stem cells had come from human embryos.

* * *

So is the moral that we should take a more libertarian approach to stem-cell research? If you think so, consider the state of things in Russia:

MOSCOW - While scientists worldwide are only studying stem cells, dozens of Russian clinics and beauty salons claim they are already using both adult and embryonic stem cells to treat everything from wrinkles to Parkinson's impotence.

These treatments seem to present more danger to the patients' bank accounts than to their health, possibly because the injections they receive sometimes contain nothing more bioactive than saline solution. As with so much else about Russian epidemiology these days, however, the real problem is that the public-health authorities don't know what is happening and don't have the resources to find out.

Thank God that, in America at least, Big Brother lives.

* * *

Here is a historical science story that almost certainly is not true, but which no fan of Alternative History could resist reporting:

BERLIN (AP) - Nazi Germany tested a crude nuclear device in March 1945, killing hundreds of people in a massive explosion in southeastern Germany, [German economist Rainer Karlsch] claims in a new book published Monday....The book cites postwar witness accounts and Soviet military intelligence reports to back up its theory of a March 3, 1945, experimental nuclear test blast at the Nazis' Ohrdruf military testing area, but it offers no direct documentary proof.

The device was supposed to have been a two-ton tactical weapon that felled trees at a distance of several hundred feet.

Nazi Germany had a small nuclear program we know a great deal about: famous names like Heisenberg were attached to it. They more or less abandoned the idea of a bomb because of the engineering uncertainties, and turned their attention to developing a reactor for the Navy. (Yes, Hitler's imaginary WMD threat was one of the reasons that Roosevelt decided on regime change rather than cold war.) On the other hand, Nazi Germany was also riddled with duplicative agencies and research projects, some of which were secret from each other. It is not impossible that Albert Speer might not have known about a modest SS nuclear project. Of course, most things that are not impossible are also not true, and I suspect that is the case with this report.

Here's the what-if: suppose that these tactical nukes had indeed existed, and been introduced into the war sometime in 1944. They would not have been decisive, or even particularly useful. In this, they would have been like the German missile weapons: had they done the worst they could have done, they still would not have been worth the effort. Indeed, the interesting point is that German tactical nukes might have closed down the American atomic-bomb effort. The huge expenditure for the Manhattan District project made sense only if the result would be decisive. If the American government were convinced that "atomic bomb" meant nothing more than a messier way to blow up tanks, they might have then decided that the matter was not worth pursuing.

* * *

Probably I should do this every posting, but once again, let me thank those of you who are buying products through this site, and donating money. As with your email, it's good to know you are out there.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-08-10: Stability; Jesus the Kid; Heinlein

John Reilly mentions Robert Heinlein's nuclear survivalism in passing here. Since I am a child of the sunny 80s, the dark days of the Cold War often seem remote to me. However, I do know that a great many things in mid-twentieth century America were done in part because they could be tied to Cold War aims, including the Interstate Highway system, modern art, and the Civil Rights movement. John here claims suburbia was a matter of surreptitious civil defense, in the mode Heinlein suggested.

I haven't seen the laws in question, although as a legal editor John plausibly could have. I'll consider this possible but unproven until and unless I see the text, but it fits with other things I know.

This is a topic I've seen often, because of my love of Jerry Pournelle's There Will be War series. Survivalism is a recurring topic in those works, and in several of Jerry's novels. I've never seen Jerry say so much in print, but he knew Heinlein, and I could believe that Heinlein was an influence here.

Stability; Jesus the Kid; Heinlein


Danielle Pletka (of the American Enterprise Institute) had some illuminating things to say in yesterday's New York Timesabout the premises of John Kerry's foreign policy. In an optimistically entitled Op Ed, Arabs on the Verge of Democracy, she remarked:

Mr. Kerry has not been specific about many of his goals, but one thing he's gone out of his way to advertise is his distaste for pushing reform at the expense of "stability" in the Middle East. Sure, he's in favor of democracy in principle, but not as the centerpiece of his foreign policy agenda. "Realism," in the fashion of Metternich and Kissinger, is his guiding light, Mr. Kerry told The New Yorker.

In this respect, Mr. Kerry echoes President George H. W. Bush and even his own father, Richard Kerry, a diplomat who once criticized the Reagan administration's "fatal error of seeing U.S. security as dependent on illusions of propagating democracy" in the Soviet bloc.

Used in this way, "stability" plays a role similar to Washington's Farewell Address in Patrick J. Buchanan's A Republic, Not an Empire. Both are cases of foreign policy prescriptions assuming the status of myth. I don't mean "myth" in the sense of an untruth, but of a way to organize experience. "Stability" has come to mean an unconditional policy of preserving international organizations, and even hostile states, whatever actual effect those organizations or states may have on the well-being of the United States. We should note that, though Henry Kissinger generally favored stability during the Cold War, this was largely because change was for the worse during that period, at least as far as the West was concerned. Writing about the the last quarter of the 19th century in his book Diplomacy (published in 1994), he showed a lively sense that the world does not always work that way:

Realpolitik -- foreign policy based on calculations of power and the national interest -- brought about the unification of Germany. And the unification of Germany caused Realpolitik to turn on itself, accomplishing the opposite of what it was meant to achieve. For the practice of Realpolitik avoids armaments races and war only if the major players of an international system are free to adjust their relations in accordance with changing circumstances or are restrained by a system of shared values, or both.

This flexibility is precisely what the Security Council system, and NATO, and the kudzu-like growth of "customary international law" prevents. Obviously the US needs a realistic structure of alliances. That is what John Kerry has promised to prevent, at quite literally all costs.

* * *

This summer, I have been re-reading short books rather than embarking on long new ones. One of these is Robertson Davies' Fifth Business (published in 1970), which deals with a curmudgeonly Scots-Canadian school teacher's search for the nature of sainthood. Anyone in immediate need of a new heresy might start with this complaint from one of the characters in the book, the detrimental old Jesuit, Fr. Ignacio Blazon:

My own idea is that when [Jesus] comes again it will be to continue His ministry as an old man. I am an old man and my life has been spent as a soldier of Christ, and I tell you that the older I grow the less Christ's teaching says to me. I am sometimes very conscious that I am following the path of a leader who died when He was less than half as old as I am now. I see and feel things He never saw or felt. I know things He seems never to have known....All Christ's teaching is put forward with the dogmatism, the certainty, and the strength of youth: I need something that takes account of the accretion of experience, the sense of paradox and ambiguity that comes with years! I think after forty we should recognize Christ politely but turn for comfort and guidance to God the Father, who knows the good and evil of life, and to the Holy Ghost, who possesses a wisdom beyond that of the incarnated Christ.

I find this interesting because I frankly don't know what Davies means. Jesus delivered more paradoxes than Domino delivers pizzas. Novels about young men are usually about coming-of-age; the extreme case is the Bildungsroman. That is exactly what the Gospels are not. Whatever you may think of the historical Jesus, the Gospel Jesus is mature and fully formed from the first, like Athena from the brow of Zeus.

Imaginary older Jesuses are not unique to Davies, of course. However, the notion that these constructs might articulate new doctrine seems fairly rare. Here is another instance that comes to mind, from C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce (published in 1946). The speaker is the spirit of an Anglican bishop, describing intellectual life in Hell:

But you've never asked what my paper is about! I'm taking the text about growing up to the full measure of the stature of Christ and working out an idea which I feel sure you'll be interested in. I'm going to point out how people always forget that Jesus (here the Ghost bowed) was a comparatively young man when he died. He would have outgrown some of his earlier views, you know, if he'd lived. As he might have done, with a little more tact and patience. I am going to ask my audience what his mature views might have been. A profoundly interesting question. What a different Christianity we might have had if only the Founder had reached his full stature! I shall end up by pointing out how this deepens the significance of the Crucifixion. One feels for the first time what a disaster it was: what a tragic much promise cut short. Oh, must you be going?

Let this be a warning to you.

* * *

One prophet who did live long enough to know better was Robert Heinlein. I was recently moved to re-read some of his stuff, because the Heinlein Society was kind enough to ask to mirror my review of Tramp Royale. (I corrected a glaring error about Heinlein's political activity when I went over it again.)

I have been reading an anthology, Expanded Universe (published in 1980). It's triply interesting: many old Heinlein items not otherwise available, especially from the early Cold War; extended commentary on them by Heinlein himself; and we finally, finally, get to see how Heinlein's predictions in 1956 for the year 2000 came out. Actually, his score went up since his assessment in 1980. In 1956, he not only predicted the end of Communism; he predicted cellphones. The bastard.

The point I take away is not that Heinlein was often wrong about the future (still no flying cars, and more's the pity), but that he routinely grasped some important principle and then made hash of the application. This is easy to forgive in his story from 1940, "Blow-Ups Happen," which dealt with a commercial nuclear reactor that was also potentially a bomb. He misunderstood how chain reactions worked, but there were few people in the world at the time who could have corrected him. Much more interesting are his nuclear-hysteria essays from immediately after the end of World War II. One of them, "The Last Days of the United States," the earliest essay advocating "survivalism" I have encountered.

Heinlein there discusses a proposal common in those days, that the nation's urban population should be "dispersed" to make it less vulnerable to atomic attack. He describes a scene in which a local Civil Defense warden knocks on a neighbor's door and tells him that he has until Tuesday to get ready to be relocated to a new settlement. Since that obviously was not going to work, Heinlein urged people to create rural retreats on their own initiative. In the event, though, government policy did disperse the population. That's what all those federally-backed mortgages for suburban housing developments were about, as well as the highway system to get to them. There were other reasons for suburbanization, of course, but we forget that a lot of the appropriation bills said "national defense" somewhere in the titles.

On the other hand, everything Heinlein had to say in his stories and essays about government decapitation is still relevant. The underground bases he recommended in case Washington is attacked were built, but there is still no easy way to replace Congress in a hurry if the membership is killed or incapacitated. This could yet prove awkward.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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LinkFest 2017-01-27

Who the hell is Jeff?

A damn good question. [With a damn good answer]

Days of Rage

A great book review/historical retrospective on 60s radicalism. I think this is an interesting companion to my post on Right-Wing Terrorism in America. I am a bit more sanguine about the possibility of political violence in America on a mass scale, but see Peter Turchin's contribution next.

A Quantitative Prediction for Political Violence in the 2020s

Peter Turchin makes an attempt to model political instability using history as a guide.

Fearless Forecasts for 2017

Michael Flynn got a laugh out of me with these.

Freudianism as a Jewish Delusion


John Reilly used to say that the guiding spirits of the twentieth century were Freud and Marx and Darwin and Einstein. Steve Sailer only looked at 3 of the 4, so I made another chart with all of them. Darwin worked earliest, and so peaked earliest, but has maintained a steady presence ever since.

Judas in Japan

Silence is a strange and powerful book, and I think this is a close match to my take on it. Compare and contrast with Paul Miki, whose feast day comes up in just under two weeks.

Gender and the Business of Innovation

I don't find it surprising that more women hold patents in drugs, biotechology, and cosmetics, than in automotive and aerospace. But I am a crimethinker. The real mystery here is what is going on in Korea?

The Long View 2003-01-16: Plan B

It might seem that I am giving John a hard time about being wrong about the Iraq War with the benefit of hindsight, and after he is dead and cannot defend himself. In reality, I completely agreed with John at the time [and Jerry Pournelle], so I am trying to understand why I was wrong too.  We have ended up with an interesting natural experiment here. At the time, in early 2003, John thought that failing to invade Iraq would led to a state of affairs much like North Korea at the time, an obnoxious state that had to be placated because of its possession of nuclear weapons.

Twelve years later, North Korea is still obnoxious, and is attempting to increase their ability to threaten their neighbors with submarine launched missiles. Fortunately, the North Koreans don't actually have submarines capable of carrying missiles, so this threat is pretty useless at present.

Iraq is a huge mess, and now it is clear that Iraq never had the means to develop nuclear weapons, so that is a failure on two counts. There has been a great deal of concern that Iran might try to develop a nuclear weapon, but I can't really see the problem. India and Pakistan have managed not to nuke each other, and they hate each other at least as much as the Israelis and the Iranians do. Iran and Israel don't even share a border, which makes problems far more likely.

A nuclear Iran might be a bigger problem for the Sunni US client states in the Persian Gulf, but then I also see that bit of inter-religious rivalry as none of our business. All in all, maybe an unmolested Iraq [and Libya, and Syria], even if the nuclear thing had been real, would have been better than what we ended up with. Stronger states, even if unjust, at least kept a lid on the chaos we see now. If a decadent state is one that wills the ends but not the means, what is a state that keeps doing the same thing over and over even when it isn't working?

Plan B
Let us assume that the Bush Administration is reined in by the international community. The UN weapons inspectors in Iraq are permitted to pursue their inquiries until the end of the summer, perhaps until next winter. The US is prevailed upon to negotiate with North Korea. Maybe the US even resumes oil shipments to keep the lines of communication open. What happens then?
First, any hope of a non-nuclear Islamist front disappears. The US would be unable to keep an invasion force in the Middle East until the end of 2003, much less to redeploy one if the current forces are withdrawn. This would be partly because of the cost of logistics and partly because of the upcoming presidential election, but chiefly because such regional support as there is for an invasion would have evaporated. The bluff of the US would have been called. The states of the region would be scurrying to accommodate themselves to Iraqi hegemony. Iraq would have a deliverable bomb by the end of 2004. The UN arms inspectors will express surprise.
Meanwhile, in East Asia, just as the US is withdrawing from the Middle East, North Korean nuclear capacity would have developed from two experimental devices to a usable arsenal, including missiles that can certainly hit Japan and probably parts of the United States.
There will then be a brief period of alarms and crises: perhaps an oil embargo, perhaps an artillery bombardment of Seoul. Before very long, though, a nuke will go off in a European or American city. Then several things will happen.
On a theoretical level, the hypothesis on which the great international institutions are based will have been refuted. The UN was founded on the idea that a system of consultative, collective security makes the world a safer place. Within a few years of a retreat from Iraq, however, it will be clear to all that the collective security system actually made the situation far worse. The wars of retaliation and preemption to follow would, nominally, be undertaken by an alliance rather than by the US alone, but the alliance would work outside the UN system. Like the alliances that won the First and Second World Wars, this one would function as an emergency executive, with little regard for existing institutions or international law as it appeared at the beginning of the 21st century.
* * *
What I have outlined here is not an optimal scenario. However, even if the current balancing act between Iraq and North Korea can be brought to a successful conclusion, we have to face the fact that the international system is decadent. I use this term in the sense proposed by Jacques Barzun in From Dawn to Decadence: a decadent society is one that wills the ends, but not the means. One way or another, we will get to the ends for which collective security was supposed to be the means. The problem is that there is a great deal of sentiment for taking the worst way possible.
* * *
Speaking of blocked societies, I just finished Jonathan D. Spence's Treason by the Book, which deals with a hapless conspiracy against the Qing government of China in the early 18th century. The scope of the book is smaller than Spence's God's Chinese Son, but then not many historical events were as big as the Taiping Rebellion.
Treason by the Book recounts an incident in which the emperor decided to deal with rumors about his government by a policy of "transparency." Government printers published an anthology of all the documents relating to the investigation of some rather naive conspirators, and the emperor made a great show of clemency. Meanwhile, he took the opportunity to suppress a whole literary tradition based on the writings of a Ming loyalist. (The loyalist's works, awkwardly enough, were standard texts for students preparing to take the civil service exams.)
We learn quite a bit about Manchu China from all this, down to the distribution list of the Capital Gazette, the imperial version of the Federal Register. However, Spence has managed to turn a bureaucratic case-study into a gripping mystery story. It is not giving away the ending to mention that one of the things we learn is how a legal system works that lacks the concept of double jeopardy.
* * *
We have more Fortean phenomena: this time it's a ghost ship, an abandoned commercial fishing boat off the west coast of Australia. In point of fact, since the vessel in question sailed through pirate-ridden waters and the crew was quite capable of deserting in any case, it would take a certain skill to make the incident into a great mystery. Arthur Canon Doyle himself had a hand in making the legend of the Marie Celeste, but where is his equal today?

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The Long View 2002-11-21: Mr. Magoo Goes to Baghdad

Since I have talked a lot about John's mistakes regarding the Iraq war, let's turn to current events. Iran's nuclear program, and the negotiations thereof are much in the news lately. I mostly find this tiresome, since I don't care if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, and I also don't think they are crazy enough to try something stupid with Israel.

I think the first because the first decade and a half of the twenty-first century proved that any country with a nuclear weapon could do pretty much as it pleased as long as the dreaded weapon wasn't used. Affirmative cases: Russia annexed Crimea, North Korea continued being North Korea, Israel continued being a right wing nationalist Jewish ethnostate, and the US continued to find shitty little countries and throw them up against a wall so the others know we mean business. Negative examples: all of the shitty little countries the US threw up against a wall, plus whomever pissed off the British, French, or Russians. Pakistan, India, and China also have nukes, but Pakistan is a basket case, and India and China are busy trying to get rich.

As for the second, that is kind of a gestalt judgment. People who know Islamic eschatology, like Timothy Furnish, like to point out that Iran is officially committed to Twelver Shia eschatology. Meaning they believe the al-Mahdi, the guided one, will return to earth from his hidden refuge to usher in a period of peace and prosperity. However, what seems to be missing here is the willingness to gamble everything on a potential Mahdi who may not pan out, which has characterized the past Mahdist movements that Furnish documented in his book on the subject. I just don't think the current rulers of Iran are that kind of sucker. They seem more like cynical political survivors to me, but I am admittedly not an expert here. It is just that if they really wanted to go all-in on Mahdism, they already would have.

Getting a nuclear weapon is a long game. You have to put in a lot of money and effort to pull it off. Then you need to get enough of them to be a credible threat. Few true millennial fanatics are capable of playing the long game; by definition, they don't think there is a long game.

John also rightly pointed out that international agencies like the IAEA don't really have power. They depend upon the goodwill of the treaty nations to function.

This is not to say that Mr. Blix is crooked, or even that he is incompetent. He and the international arms-control bureaucracy do what they do very well. What we have to keep in mind is that what they do not do is control the spread of arms. Rather, they are agents of "cooperation" among the participants to arms-control treaties. This is more than enough, 90% of the time. States sign these treaties because they really have no intention of acquiring the weapons in question. The treaties have the effect of taking the issue off the table by providing proxy inspections of neighboring countries. If it amuses their neighbors to squirrel away a few cannisters of poison gas, the violation is rarely important. The inspections themselves are almost ceremonial.

I suspect Iran doesn't want a nuclear weapon, but I would put that at about 60-70% probability. There are some pretty powerful incentives to want one, and many of them are provided by us.

John also made a prediction here that the expansion of NATO was part of the debellicization of Europe.

Consider NATO, for instance. Even as I write, President Bush is in Prague at a summit meeting of the leaders of NATO countries, who are about to welcome another seven Eastern European states into their midst. NATO was formed as an anti-Soviet alliance; it has now rolled up to the very border of the Russian Federation. This is deeply offensive to Russian pride, but the Russians clearly understand that NATO is not a strategic threat.
The new additions are not the expansion of a military alliance. Rather, they are part of the process of the "debellicization" of Europe. NATO has become an excuse not to have a serious military. NATO's policy now is that the smaller members of the alliance should not even try to maintain full military establishments, however small. Rather, they should each specialize in some "niche" beneficial to all of NATO; the Czechs will do chemical decontamination if the occasion arises, for instance, and the Spaniards will do minesweeping. This sounds like an admirably rational way to allocate resources. Still, one might reasonably fear that, should it be mobilized, such a mosaic military would discover that everything from its flashlight batteries to its office folders are incompatible.
Without becoming too speculative, I might suggest that we are almost in a position to appreciate the difference between a national empire of the colonial period and an empire of the sort that comparative historians call "universal states." The British Empire, or for that matter Alexander's, were defined by their substance. In contrast, the Roman Empire was defined by its absences. It was a Zen kind of thing, founded less on conquest than on apathy. That apathy is back with us today, but no one cares.

I think this may be half right. Russia clearly thinks that NATO expansion in the Baltic states, Eastern Europe, and the Caucasus, is a strategic threat. The mess in Ukraine is part of the Russian counter-strategy to this. As far as Western and Central Europe is concerned, I think John was on the right track. The West seems to be trundling towards Empire in a rather thoughtless way. A joint-NATO task force involving more than token presence from NATO members other than the US would probably make that clear.

Austrian Cultural Forum in NYC

Austrian Cultural Forum in NYC

The Austrian Cultural Forum in New York City is a strange one. I actually find it less offensive than some other modernist buildings. My personal favorite juxtaposition is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles [the Taj Mahony] across the 101 Freeway from the Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts. As Steve Sailer memorably said, it looks like a giant Japanese robot is going to burn down the cathedral with a flamethrower.

Mr. Magoo Goes to Baghdad

Why did I immediately think of Mr. Magoo when I heard that Hans Blix had arrived in Baghdad to begin the leisurely process of looking for weapons of mass destruction? You remember Mr. Magoo, surely. He was a cartoon character from the UPA studios. Best known in the 1950s, he was an old gentleman who mumbled cheerfully to himself as he walked through adventures that his extreme nearsightedness hid from him. I soon found what must have been half of the connection: it seems that Mr. Magoo featured in a film called 1001 Arabian Nights, which I must have seen as a child, and which was no doubt set in Baghdad.

The other half of the connection is that Mr. Blix does seem to have more than his share of Magoo-like qualities. He, too, is an amiable old gentleman whom it is easy to imagine stumbling into a doorpost and saying: "I beg your pardon, madam!" This is the man who gave Iraq in the late 1980s, and North Korea in the early 1990s, a clean bill of health with regard to the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. In the latter case, he even tried to get the inspector who blew the whistle fired. Like Mr. Magoo. he is quite capable of walking through a minefield and declaring, when he reaches the other side, that he had never seen a finer rose garden.

This is not to say that Mr. Blix is crooked, or even that he is incompetent. He and the international arms-control bureaucracy do what they do very well. What we have to keep in mind is that what they do not do is control the spread of arms. Rather, they are agents of "cooperation" among the participants to arms-control treaties. This is more than enough, 90% of the time. States sign these treaties because they really have no intention of acquiring the weapons in question. The treaties have the effect of taking the issue off the table by providing proxy inspections of neighboring countries. If it amuses their neighbors to squirrel away a few cannisters of poison gas, the violation is rarely important. The inspections themselves are almost ceremonial.

The problems arise when a country signs a non-proliferation agreement in order to cover up a weapons program. In that case, the inspection regime will not only fail to uncover the program, it will actually serve to cover it up.

* * *

The true function of the arms inspection agencies is only a special case of something that is becoming generally true of the the chief institutions of the international system. These entities often dispose of surprisingly little power. They are not idle exercises, however, because they do serve by occupying spaces where power would otherwise be.

Consider NATO, for instance. Even as I write, President Bush is in Prague at a summit meeting of the leaders of NATO countries, who are about to welcome another seven Eastern European states into their midst. NATO was formed as an anti-Soviet alliance; it has now rolled up to the very border of the Russian Federation. This is deeply offensive to Russian pride, but the Russians clearly understand that NATO is not a strategic threat.

The new additions are not the expansion of a military alliance. Rather, they are part of the process of the "debellicization" of Europe. NATO has become an excuse not to have a serious military. NATO's policy now is that the smaller members of the alliance should not even try to maintain full military establishments, however small. Rather, they should each specialize in some "niche" beneficial to all of NATO; the Czechs will do chemical decontamination if the occasion arises, for instance, and the Spaniards will do minesweeping. This sounds like an admirably rational way to allocate resources. Still, one might reasonably fear that, should it be mobilized, such a mosaic military would discover that everything from its flashlight batteries to its office folders are incompatible.

Without becoming too speculative, I might suggest that we are almost in a position to appreciate the difference between a national empire of the colonial period and an empire of the sort that comparative historians call "universal states." The British Empire, or for that matter Alexander's, were defined by their substance. In contrast, the Roman Empire was defined by its absences. It was a Zen kind of thing, founded less on conquest than on apathy. That apathy is back with us today, but no one cares.

* * *

Finally, speaking of purblindness and spiritual exhaustion, I came across this outraged reaction by William Mitchell of MIT's architecture school to Princeton's plan to build its new dormitories in the Gothic style. According to the New York Times (November 20, 2002):

"Dean Mitchell described Princeton's choice as 'roughly the equivalent of requiring all e-mail to be written in Shakespearean English' and said it signals 'an astonishing lack of interest in architecture's capacity to respond innovatively and critically to the conditions of our own time and place.'"

Actually, it is the dean's remarks that are anachronistic. The International and Postmodern Styles that MIT favors are the establishment, and have been so for two generations. Using Gothic today critiques the fact that architects working in those 20th century styles too often did uniquely bad work.

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The Long View 2002-10-30: Surrender and Taxes

With the trial in Boston of Chechens acting Checheny, this is a good time to review the fact that Chechens have pretty much always been a pain in the ass to everyone who came in contact with them, and the age of air travel is exporting this fun to everyone. The great Russian novelists, like Tolstoy, wrote admiring/admonitory novels about the Chechens. Which also reminds me of Scott Adams' recent blog post against reading fiction. I'm more sympathetic to his argument than I would have thought, but I suspect that a diet of pure non-fiction wouldn't help you accurately understand the Chechens in the way that Tolstoy can.

In the years after 9/11, the Russians suffered immensely from their proximity to the Chechens. They might have deserved it, but if you think of the Chechens like the Apaches or the Comanche in nineteenth-century America, minus smallpox, you might have a better idea of what is going on.

Speaking of crazy, we still suffer from the annoyance of the North Korean zombie state twelve years later, mostly due to their possession of nuclear weapons. It seems plausible to me that something could eventually tip North Korea into union with South Korea, but the two countries aren't quite like East and West Germany. Only the power of the Soviet Union kept the two Germanies apart. China, the relevant regional power in Asia, actually seems to help keep the North Koreans reined in. They really are crazy.

Finally, we turn to the tax code. President Obama recently suffered a defeat at the hands of his own party over the 529 college savings account plans that illustrates how obscure our tax code has become. The last time a major tax reform was passed, it actually caused a minor recession, in part because of the partisan tendencies of the then Republican Congress to favor tax cuts over pruning deductions. However, the President's recent difficulty highlights the powerful pull tax deductions exert in American politics.

In principle, you should be able to craft a tax code change that is revenue neutral, but makes compliance simpler. This ought to be better, but good luck actually implementing it. Another probably necessary reform that will never happen is spreading the tax base more widely among American citizens. The strange thing is that while our tax code is one of the most progressive in the world [defined as taxing the rich the most], our welfare programs seem to be less progressive [defined as making poor people better off]. This isn't actually a paradox once you realize that tax revenues [not rates] would be higher if poorer people paid more taxes. John often made this point, but I didn't understand how it worked until recently. The populist temptation to soak the rich isn't what made America a paradise in the middle of the twentieth century.

It was the noblesse oblige of the elites that made it possible. That took a degree of solidarity we no longer possess.

Surrender & Taxes


Here is the Russians' Chechen problem: they already tried surrender, and it didn't work. They actually withdrew from Chechnia for a while in the 1990s, after attempts to suppress the separatist movement failed. The Russians probably would have reconciled themselves to an independent Chechnia, or at least might have negotiated a new status for the country within the Russian Federation. As it happened, however, they were not given the chance. A working independent government failed to form in Chechnia. The place was taken over by bandits. The bandits were increasingly in league with the Islamicist network, and began to infiltrate the surrounding republics. There really was no alternative to another invasion, though it should have been carried out with less indifference to civilian casualties.

Had there been no invasion, would something like last week's hostage-taking in Moscow have been avoided? Probably not: the Islamicists have ambitions for the other predominantly Muslim areas of the Russian Federation. Certainly Chechen terrorism did not stop when Chechnia was de facto independent. The pacification of Chechnia is an appalling undertaking on all sides, but negotiation is not an option.


* * *

The same is true of the nuclear threat posed by North Korea. The political class in the United States has yet to grasp that the 1994 agreement negotiated by former President Jimmy Carter was one of the great catastrophes of modern times. Even those who understand that something serious has happened are still determined to do nothing about.

Consider, for instance, Nicholas D. Kristof. Although a columnist for the New York Times, he has shown that he is not necessarily inaccessible to the light. Nonetheless, in column entitled "The Greatest Threat" (Oct. 29, 2002), he was capable of writing this:


"Donald Gregg, a former ambassador to Seoul who is president of the Korea Society, says imposing sanction on Korea 'would be crazy.' Likewise, a military strike is not feasible, given that it would probably trigger a new Korean war.

"On the other hand, how can we accept a North Korea with a large nuclear arsenal? How can we continue to ship fuel to the North as if nothing had happened?

"That leaves only one alternative, holding our nose and negotiating a deal with North Korea (without ever calling it negotiating, and possibly using proxies like China). The North would give up its nukes nd missiles, all sides would agree to end the hostilities of the Korean War (there never was a peace treaty), and Western countries would normalize relations with the North."

One does not quite know what to say to this. The one thing we know about the North Koreans is that, when you make a deal with them, they accept payment and they don't make delivery. The dismissal of sanctions is particularly bizarre. Unlike Iraq, for instance, North Korea is so isolated that it is one of the few places in the world where sanctions would be very effective. This is particularly the case because, by most accounts, "North Korea" actually collapsed a few years ago. All that's left is a post-apocalyptic government that survives on the proceeds of foreign extortion.

The "one alternative" is to drive that regime to implosion. The problem is that, thanks to Jimmy Carter, that inevitable course is now much more perilous.


* * *

Let us turn for a moment to a more pleasant subject: taxes. I see that the Treasury is considering yet another general overhaul of the federal income tax. I myself have rather fond memories of the last big reform bill. What was it, the "Thorough and Efficient Reform Act of 1986"? Maybe it was the "Tax Efficiency and Reform Act of 1986." Anyway, TEFRA kept me and several other editors at West Publishing Company innocently engaged for many weeks. West had the contract to edit the United States Code (and the Internal Revenue Service Code, which is actually distinct), so we cut up the 1,500-page bill into little strips and pasted them onto cards. Then we penciled in changes to make the bill's text conform to the style of the IRS Code.

As you might suppose, this could be tedious. Indeed, some of us went mad, and had to be put down. Nonetheless, the work was done, and I at least remain convinced that we made the world a slightly better place.

The TEFRA principle was simple enough. The tax code had evolved in such a way that the rates that individuals and businesses actually paid were much lower than the nominal rates. People avoided paying the nominal rates by investing or spending their money in a way that took advantage of deductions. Some deductions were well intentioned. Some were pure pork. In any case, they had grown like a coral reef, so that it was impossible to tell what effect any given change to the tax laws would have on revenues. More important, everybody was spending more and more time worrying about the tax implications of their activities, and less and less about whether those activities made economic sense. The obvious solution was to lower the nominal rates and remove the deductions, so as to keep revenues at the same level.

That almost happened. The tax rates were lowered and their number diminished. Tax forms became simpler, briefly, because the number of deductions decreased, too. The big failing of TEFRA was that Congress was keener to lower rates than to end deductions, so the result was not revenue neutral. In consequence, Congress created the Alternative Minimum Tax, one of the great practical jokes of modern accounting. It takes back some of the deductions that TEFRA kept. The Alternative Minimum Tax was originally supposed to affect only high-income tax payers with large deductions. However, the increasing incomes of taxpayers since 1986, and the addition of a new coral reef of deductions, mean that more and more people now have to pay the Alternative Minium. This, no doubt, is part of the reason the Treasury believes a total overhaul is in order.

I myself have no particular preference for what a new tax code should look like. I do, however, have one principle to guide reform. Like a machine with no moving parts, this is an ideal that the real world can only approach. Nonetheless, it is the key to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The principle is this:


Never do anything for tax purposes.

There, now you know. Go teach all nations.

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The Long View 2002-10-17: Expressions of Sympathy

Topical commentary from John in 2002 about the glee with which the North Koreans flouted the nuclear anti-proliferation treaty, the faux inspections leading up to the Iraq War, and the D. C. snipers, Lee Boyd Malvo, and John Allen Muhammad. In this case, John turned out to have a pretty good guesses about Malvo and Muhammad.

John was far too innocent to find things like this funny, but Somebody Blew Up America reminds me of Who Bitch this is?

Expressions of Sympathy

Let us pity Mohammed Aldouri, the Iraqi ambassador to the UN. This morning The New York Times finally ran his Op Ed piece, in which he gives his readers the assurances of unconditional weapons inspection that his government can never quite bring itself to give to the actual weapons inspectors. On the same day, the Times reports that North Korea says it is "nullifying" the 1994 arms control agreement designed to prevent that country from acquiring nuclear weapons. They also say that, yes, they have been running a clandestine fissile materials program, which they strongly hint has already produced usable weapons. Few events, short of nuking Osaka, could have more plainly illustrated the complete bankruptcy of the international arms-control regime. Perhaps the ambassador's only consolation is that some opinion-makers will surely argue that we cannot possibly deal with Iraq now, because of the new crisis in East Asia.

No such consolation is available to former US president, Jimmy Carter, who just a few days ago received the Nobel Peace Prize for doing things like helping to negotiate the 1994 agreement. At the time, it was obvious to all serious observers that the agreement was a US capitulation, and that it simply meant the North Koreans would acquire nuclear-armed missiles a bit more slowly. It may or may not have prevented a conventional war at the time. By allowing North Korea time to acquire a nuclear deterrent, it has certainly made a war appreciably more likely now. So much for containment, I think.


* * *

Predictably, speculation about the identity of the DC Shooter has turned to the possibility of an al Qaeda link. This theory makes as much sense as any other. The shooter has obviously had considerable training as a marksman, and his ability to avoid capture to date suggests special-operations training. On the other hand, these shootings no more resemble what Islamicist terrorists normally do than they resemble what home-grown rightwing terrorists normally do, or for that matter what serial killers normally do. If there really were a connection to al Qaeda, one would expect several shooters to be operating simultaneously around the country. However, the terrorist connection was recently given some support by descriptions of the shooter, which say he is a swarthy fellow, possibly "Middle Eastern or Hispanic."

This is slender evidence. Swarthiness is an unreliable indicator of nationality, even assuming the descriptions are correct. The police have been handling the situation well so far, perhaps because, unlike the FBI in connection with the anthrax cases, the police don't seem to have become ideologically committed to any one theory. One trusts that the police, at least, will cut the swarthy of the world some slack, even if the swarthy are driving white vans.


* * *

Most in need of sympathy of all may be Amiri Baraka, the Poet Laureate of New Jersey. That title was enough to open any late-night talkshow monologue with a laugh, even before the incumbent laureate gifted the world with his poem, Somebody Blew Up America. As we all know by now, that work is largely a list of rhetorical questions, such as "who murdered the Rosenbergs" and, most famously, "Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers/ To stay home that day." Media reports do not fully convey the scope of the questions. The poem goes on and on with such queries as:

Who own them buildings
Who got the money
Who think you funny
Who locked you up
Who own the papers

Mr. Baraka's poem has excited so much hostile comment that the governor of New Jersey is seeking to strip the laureate of his laurels. A point that no one seems to have noticed is that the poem in question may be derivative. Both in style and content, Somebody Blew Up America mirrors the The Stone Cutters' Song from an episode of The Simpsons:

Who controls the British crown?
Who keeps the metric system down?
We do! We do!

While this scarcely amounts to plagiarism, surely New Jersey deserves a poet laureate of greater originality? Or perhaps, instead of a state poet, a state animation?

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2002-09-12: Destabilizing Deterrence

There is immense value to a country in possessing nuclear weapons, at least in part because of the mythos that has grown up around them. Iraq didn't really have the ability to make nuclear weapons, but Saddam would be toasting his good health today if they did. [there are those who disagree] North Korea would still exist, since they managed to annoy their neighbors for a good long while without nuclear weapons, but everyone would take them far less seriously. Qaddafi thought that making nice with the US after the Second Gulf War would work, and you can see how well that worked for him.

However, for all that, there are a number of countries that plausibly could have developed nuclear weapons, and have chosen not to. Why not is a more interesting question than why.

Destabilizing Deterrence


Just this morning, the New York Times ran an Op Ed piece that illustrates the decay into which the concept of strategic deterrence has fallen. In "The Wisdom of Imagining the Worst-Case Scenario," Milton Viorst gives us some imaginary horribles to chew over in connection with a US invasion of Iraq. He suggests that by "moving into Saudi Arabia, Saddam Hussein would shift the battlefield far to the south, imposing on American troops a much heavier burden than just the capture of Baghdad." Such a move would put the operation of the Saudi oil fields at risk, and so the whole world's economy.

It's actually a little hard to imagine how Iraqi mainforce units could invade anything under the cover of US air supremacy, but it is not out of the question that Iraqi missiles could do some damage to the oil fields. However, these things would be only the beginning of evils. Suppose the Iraqis fire some bio-chemical weapons at Tel Aviv, and the Israelis nuke Baghdad? In that case:


"[Pakistan's President] Pervez Musharraf....has joined America's war on terrorism but would be unlikely to survive politically should there be a nuclear attack by an American ally on Iraq's Muslims. Islamists, overthrowing him, would take control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal; lacking the ability to launch missiles that would reach Israel, they would turn to India, their proximate enemy. A nuclear attack would set off global chaos."

As a matter of fact, a Pakistani nuclear strike would not "set off global chaos," though it would result in the end of the Pakistani state in short order. What would set off chaos would be if an Islamist government in Pakistan started handing out small nuclear devices as party favors to terrorists and criminal groups, something that elements of the Pakistani security services have hinted they might do. This would actually be far more like the situation we would face, should Iraq and Iran ever acquire the bomb.

Doubtless the sovereign suppliers of the technology of mass destruction could always maintain plausible deniability. They could feed the world's terrorist networks and black arms-markets with components, expertise, and occasionally sanctuary. Such countries rarely do anything blatant enough to constitute a traditional causus belli. Up until now, of course, it has been possible to strike at states that do such things, or to threaten them with retaliation: measures such as the air strikes on Libya by the Reagan Administration did much to transform the open support for terrorism displayed by some governments in the 1970s into the much more tactful attitude of the past 20 years or so. This is what is about to change.

A single, deliverable nuclear weapon grants a state a large measure of invulnerability. Even if Iraq were openly underwriting Al Qaeda's campaign against the United States, the US could not plausibly threaten to remove the government in Baghdad, if that meant that Tel Aviv, or Rome, or Paris, would go up in cinders as soon as the Rangers took the last Iraqi presidential bunker. Conventional aggression by such states could never be answered by conventional responses that posed an existential threat to their regimes. This is, in fact, much the situation that now confronts the US with regard to North Korea, a nuclear-armed failed-state that survives by exacting blackmail from the US and from its neighbors.

During the Cold War, deterrence served not just to prevent a nuclear exchange, but also to inhibit the direct use of conventional force by the US and the USSR. In the current era, deterrence has nearly the opposite effect; it still reduces the chance that weapons of mass destruction will be used, but it facilitates the use of force against the majority of the world's states that have no hope of acquiring an effective deterrent.

The dismaying thing about the Cold War was that, while it was on, there seemed to be no reason why it should not continue forever. That is not the case with the Terror War. The number of irresponsible states that seek to acquire the immunity afforded by weapons of mass destruction is not large. The arms networks they support are also limited in geography and resources. A consistent policy of preemption could end the danger worldwide in much less than a generation. Forcible regime change should be necessary in just a few cases; once it is clear the policy will be carried out consistently, no state will openly run the risk of falling within its ambit.

Then we will have deterrence we can live with.

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The Long View: World War III

Vault Boy checking the size of a mushroom cloudIn the 1950s, there really wasn't any reason to be terrified of nuclear weapons. The Soviets had them, but they didn't have very many, and it took a long time for a bomber to fly across the Arctic Circle. The strategic planners and civil defense authorities of the day reacted accordingly. With that settled, they could turn to the far more interesting question of, what would happen if Soviet tanks came pouring through the Fulda Gap.

Dropshot was a plan for war written in 1949, drawing on all the practical experience gained during the Second World War. While it was written in 1949, it seems perfectly adapted to the actual President in 1957, Dwight D. Eisenhower. John recasts Eisenhower as a crafty Machiavellian political genius who was far better at playing the Great Game with the Soviets than Kennedy or Johnson. You would have wanted someone sober and experienced at the helm when World War III came.

As such, John decides to have some fun by killing off Eisenhower and having the American people elect Adlai Stevenson over Richard Nixon. When then Soviets do invade, there is a far more excitable Commander in Chief.

Dropshot imagines the worst. The Soviets take Central Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Japan. You can find its like commonly represented in popular fiction, from Kornbluth's Not this August to Red Dawn. However, unlike most of those stories, Dropshot manages to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and it plans for the eventual NATO counter-attack and occupation of Soviet Russia.

The successful conclusion of World War III with an American victory would have meant that the End of History arrived thirty years earlier than it actually did. It also would have enshrined the command economy known as War Socialism into the American psyche. The Sixties would have been cancelled for the duration of the emergency.

Part of the fun of alternative history is trying to figure out what would be the same, and what would be different if some major event or decision went another way. John imagined that we would have ultimately ended up in a similar place once the command economies and sober publics of a post-WWIII era lost their strictures with time, but that the world would ultimately have been worse off for a having fought another war of global reach, even if it were the more limited kind of war Dropshot envisioned.

We might never have enjoyed all the electronic marvels that came out of Silicon Valley, side benefits of the race to build ICBMs. The post-WWII economic growth in America, Western Europe, and East Asia would likely have never happened either. Japan and Korea would still be largely agricultural economies, rather than the advanced technological powerhouses we see today. Growth and progress would still have happened eventually, but the societies that experienced them would be less able to benefit, because demographic transition and cultural change had already occurred decades earlier. The world we live in has some not so nice features, but it far from the worst imaginable world.

World War III in 1957



Part I



The year 1957 is not chosen at random. That is the year contemplated by "Dropshot," the U.S. plan for a third world war, which governed strategic thinking for the 1950s. Originally created in 1949, the plan was eventually released under the Freedom of Information Act. It was published, with commentary, in 1978 by Anthony Cave Brown in a book entitled "Dropshot." The war described by that book is the starting point for this article, though my discussion departs from it in many particulars. I would like to consider three topics:

(1) How could such a war could have started?

(2) What would the course of the war have been?

(3) What would postwar history have been like?

A preliminary matter that must be dealt with is the role of nuclear weapons. The writers of Dropshot in 1949 did not think that nuclear weapons would be decisive. Their use would have been optional except in retaliation. Though atomic bombs are devastating if you can transport them someplace where they can do damage, the only means then available was the bomber. This made delivery highly problematical, especially between continents. The writers did note that their assessment would be obsolete if these weapons could be married to rockets capable of flying between North America and Eurasia. As it happened, the era of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) did not really begin until the early 1960s. As late as the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the Soviets were estimated to have only about 50 ICBMs, none in hardened silos. (The Pentagon expressed confidence to President Kennedy that the U.S. could destroy them before they could be launched. Kennedy was not enthusiastic about putting this confidence to the test).

Thus, while Dropshot did anticipate that the U.S. would be able to make successful nuclear strikes at a few Soviet industrial facilities, it judged that these would not be enough to determine the course of the war. Dropshot forecast that the Soviets would be able to drop no more than two atomic bombs on the United States, and that only if they were lucky. It now appears that those "duck and cover" instructional films that were shown in schools starting in the 1950s were less irrational than later opinion has assumed. If you were affected by one of these strikes at all, you were likely to be some distance from ground zero, where precautions against blast and fallout would make perfect sense. We should also note that the relative immunity to atomic attack enjoyed by the United States would not have applied to the European members of NATO. Even in Europe, however, Dropshot did not believe that atomic weapons would be decisive, or even necessarily used at all.

With these points settled, we may begin the discussion proper:

(1) How could such a war could have started? It could not have started by accident. The hair-trigger nuclear response procedures which characterized the later stages of the Cold War simply did not exist during the period in question. There was no need for them, since it would have taken hours for a nuclear-armed bomber to reach its target. Indeed, the leaders of the U.S. and the Soviet Union would have been less constrained than were the leaders of the major European powers in August 1914. The intricate mass mobilization plans devised by France and Germany in preparation for the First World War could not really be controlled once they were started. They were intimately tied to strategic plans of offense and defense which required major battles to occur within days of the start of mobilization. A war in 1957 between the United States and the Soviet Union would have started very differently. The mobilization of whole continents is necessarily a leisurely affair. The plans the newly mobilized armies would have been called on to execute would have been calculated in terms of months or years. Therefore, though accidental skirmishes between East and West might have occurred in Europe or the Mediterranean in the 1950s, an actual war would probably have to have been deliberate.

Since the Dropshot war is defensive, at least in its opening stages, we must imagine a situation in which the Soviets launch a general offensive to occupy Western Europe (and various other places, as we will see below.) This would have required a Soviet leadership that believed a decisive victory for communism was achievable by military means, and a U.S. leadership that was either threatening or indecisive or both. The first requirement would have been met by the survival of Stalin into a vigorous old age. Though Stalin died in 1953, he would have only 78 years old in 1957, hardly old enough to get a driver's license in Georgia. The Stalin whom Solzhenitsyn described in his novel, "The First Circle," planned to fight and win a decisive third world war. Let us then imagine the old tyrant succumbing to delusions of omnipotence because of his overwhelming victory in the Second World War, yet frightened by events he sees happening on the other side of the world.

There is a good argument to made that the United States took as little hurt from the Cold War as it did because the president during the 1950s was that logistics expert, Dwight David Eisenhower. Throughout his presidency, experts from the Pentagon would come to him with estimates of the terrifying strength of the Soviet Union and proposals for huge increases in conventional forces which would be necessary to counter it. Eisenhower, who had been a five star general, knew just how seriously to take assessments of this type. Using his own good judgment to gauge just what the Soviets could or would do, he starved the U.S. military during the 1950s to let give the consumer economy room to breath. It was a risk, but history shows that he was right to take it. (His successor, John Kennedy, lacking this self-assurance, tended to act on the assumption that the most pessimistic assessment was the correct one, which was part of the reason for the Vietnam War.) Eisenhower knew that the Soviets were a real threat, one that had to be contained. In this he was right: the attempts by revisionist historians to ascribe the Cold War to American paranoia are tendentious. He was also right in believing that containment, as distinguished from rollback, could be achieved by feint and threat. He could make threats effectively because he was a known quantity to the Soviet leadership. They knew he was a cautious commander, that he would not start a fight if he did not have to, that he was not easily deceived. Even when they lied to him, they lied within limits understood by both sides.

Let us picture an alternative president. Suppose that Eisenhower is out on the golf links in September of 1956, taking a short break from his not-very-grueling campaign for almost certain reelection, when he has a fatal heart attack. His running mate, Vice President Richard Nixon, was even then a man of ambiguous reputation. Nixon assumes the top spot on the Republican ticket, and he has few if any differences with his boss's sober military and foreign policies. However, people quickly form the impression that he is too young and too opportunistic to be president yet. They therefore turn, with a sigh of resignation, to the Democratic presidential contender, Adlai Stevenson. Stevenson, of course, had many gifts. He was intelligent, well-informed, and articulate to a degree rare among American politicians. Stevenson was a genuine intellectual. Unfortunately, he was also a windbag in the great tradition of William Jennings Bryan and a sentimental internationalist in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson. Sentiment and kindness are not the same thing, so foreign affairs conducted by sentimental statesmen are often envenomed to an unusual degree.

Stevenson's foreign policy is itself a good illustration. John Kenneth Galbraith, who helped write Stevenson's speeches in the early 1950s, has remarked that part of his job consisted of toning down the virtual declarations of war against the Soviet Union that Stevenson usually inserted in his first drafts. Doubtless some of this rhetoric was intended merely to counter the impression that the Democratic Party was soft on Communism. However, it cannot be denied that Stevenson felt the policy of Cold War containment was immoral because it did not go far enough. He did not favor an attack on the Soviet Union, but he did want it pressured from all directions with physical and moral force. This was what Ronald Reagan actually did in the 1980s, with considerable success. However, Reagan and his advisers knew that the Soviet Union had exhausted the growth capacity of a command economy, that the system was strong but brittle. In the 1950s, by contrast, the Soviet Union was growing and confident. Stevenson would not have been deterred by this well-known fact; he had the sort of mind that regarded mere practicality as rather tawdry. His idealism would have been costly. Even a symbolic threat to the Soviet Empire, as it then was, would have brought results quite different from those of thirty years later.

If the parties to the Cold War had wanted a military showdown, they would have had several perfectly suitable occasions in 1956, notably the Suez Crisis and the Hungarian Uprising. Had Stalin still been alive at that time, it is conceivable that he would have started to deal with the peoples of Eastern Europe as he had begun to deal with the peoples of the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Certainly some Eastern Europeans believed that Stalin was planning massive movements of populations and the vigorous purging of pre-World War II society. If this happened, an outraged Stevenson Administration might then have announced its intention to send a standby expeditionary force to Western Europe to support any future popular uprisings in Eastern Europe. Less suspicious rulers than Stalin would have been moved to preemptive action in such an event. He would not have been reassured by the interminable flow of moralistic rhetoric that President Stevenson could have been relived upon to produce. There would have been too much of it to read, much less analyze. Stalin could easily have decided that he could no longer wait for his creatures in Western Europe to take power through force or fraud. Hoping for a decisive victory before the U.S. expeditionary force could arrive, he sends his armies across the north German plain to take the ports on the English Channel.

(2) What would the course of the war have been? The Dropshot study is not a belligerent document. It seems to be one of those common bureaucratic plans which deliberately present a scenario so hair-raising that its intended readers will be dissuaded from ever trying it in real life. It does, of course, wildly overestimate anything the Soviet could or would do. In addition to the main thrust across northwestern Europe, it contemplates simultaneous Soviet offensives into the Middle East and Japan. (For reasons wholly obscure, it directs that Hokkaido, the northernmost and least populous of the main Japanese islands, be abandoned.) Its assessment of the early course of the war in Europe, however, was certainly realistic in 1949, and might still have held true in 1957. The gist of the forecast was two months of unrelieved disaster. While the planners hoped to stop the offensive somewhere in Germany, their sober assessment was that it would have been difficult even to hold Britain. Readers of Norman Schwartzkopf's memoir, "It Doesn't Take A Hero," will recall his description of the state of the U.S. Army in the 1950s. At least that part of it stationed in the United States was a hollow force of badly trained conscripts. Its equipment was ill-maintained and its senior officer corps consisted disproportionately of World War II veterans who would not otherwise have had jobs. This was the Army that was sent to fight in Vietnam, with what results we know. While doubtless the emergency of a world war would have quickly brought improvements, the opening phases of the war would have had to be fought with what the U.S. had on hand. What it had was not all that good.

In some ways, an actual world war fought in 1957 would have been fought under even worse conditions than those envisioned in 1949. When Dropshot was being developed, the fate of China was still in doubt. The maps that come with the plan show China with a Communist north and a Nationalist south. The study discusses the country mostly in terms of natural resources and as a bridge to French Indochina. In reality, by 1957 China was a united ally of the Soviet Union. It had a significant military, as proven by the Korean War. As we know now, Chairman Mao tended to needle the Soviet leadership for being too accommodating to the West. By some accounts, he even proposed an offensive war against the West to Nikita Khruschev, offering tens of millions of soldiers and even the union of China with the USSR. Of course, China had (and has) little striking power beyond its own borders, and the Soviet Union could not have come near to supplying the Chinese Red Army with the equipment for offensive capabilities. Still, the Sino-Soviet alliance in a World War would have been a formidable opponent. It is perfectly plausible that some Chinese armies would have fought not just around China's perimeter, but in France and Germany.

The worst case scenario for such a war is available, not in Dropshot, but in a 1955 novel by C.M. Kornbluth, entitled "Not This August." We hear about the war mostly in retrospect, since in the first few pages the president of the United States surrenders to the Communist alliance in a radio address. The bulk of the book is a description of the Soviet occupation, as it affects a single small town. The war lasted for three years, and it was not so different from the Dropshot war. Nuclear weapons were not a decisive factor. The Soviets take all of Europe and, using its resources and Chinese manpower, contrive to defeat the American fleet, make a landing in Central America and work their way north. The U.S. surrenders when the American front in Texas collapses.

It might seem a bit premature to surrender with the enemy only on the southern border, but the author paints a good picture of a society that has already been bled white. All available manpower and industrial capacity have been diverted to the war, and still it is not enough. Dropshot contemplates a comparable degree of mobilization. Thirty million people of both sexes would have been needed to win the war the plan laid out. It would not have been an economically invigorating war, as the Second World War was for the United States. Wars are only invigorating if the economy has a lot of unused potential which would go to waste if not used for military production. This was the case with the American economy in 1940, but not in 1957. Rather, it would have been like the Second World War was for Great Britain, with every warm body either in the service or doing something to support the war effort, and with civilian production at destitution levels. During and after the Second World War, a number of laws were passed giving the president standby authority to nationalize or otherwise commandeer most of the industrial plant of the U.S. in the event of a national emergency. Universal conscription was, in principle, already in place. In the course of the war against the Communist alliance, the U.S. would itself have become a command-economy state.

Part II of World War III in 1957

In actuality, or course, even if the Soviets got to Antwerp, they would be most unlikely to have arrived in Amarillo three years later. Rather than the immediate loss of Western Europe, we must imagine Central Europe becoming a debatable region. After absorbing the initial offensive, Dropshot calls for NATO to hold the line while the resources of the United States were mobilized. Realistically, this could have taken at least a year. During that time, it would have been extremely difficult to keep NATO together. One of the points which "Not This August" emphasizes as a factor in the defeat of the United States is the role of the Communist underground. The state of the evidence suggests that such a concern may be more than simple McCarthyite paranoia. The part played by Communists and communist sympathizers in the politics and culture of the U.S. in the 1930s and 1940s is still insufficiently appreciated. If I had to name a single book to support this point, I would suggest the last of Upton Sinclair's "Lanny Budd" novels, entitled "A World to Win." Published in 1946, it describes sympathetically the adventures of a wealthy American Communist as he moves about the world during and just before the war, helping to organize the fight against Fascism. The author, who made no secret of his own leftist sympathies, describes the pro-Soviet cells which exist everywhere in the U.S., in Hollywood and Washington and the arts. This, of course, was all edifying progressive fiction, but it seems to have been fictionalized rather than fantastic.

The pro-Soviet streak in America politics did real harm during the Molotov-Ribbentrop pack, when it actively impeded U.S. attempts to prepare for World War II. It continued to do harm throughout the Cold War era, up to and including the "Nuclear Freeze" movement of the 1980s, which nearly succeeded in depriving American negotiators of the bargaining power they needed to get the Soviets to reduce the number of nuclear weapons. While this force in American politics would have been as active as possible during a U.S.-Soviet war, they might not have counted for that much, considering the high degree of national unity there would have been. In any event, they would have worked through front groups as much as possible. This would not have been the case in Europe. The powerful Communist Parties in France and Italy were openly and proudly pro-Soviet, indeed pro-Stalin. They could and would have organized work stoppages and mutinies. The peace movements they would have supported would have been particularly persuasive with hostile and at least temporarily triumphant armies only a few hundred miles away. Even if they could not have forced their countries to surrender, they could have made all but the most perfunctory participation in the war impossible.

Still, these political difficulties would have been no more insurmountable than those that had to be overcome to win the Second World War. Assuming, therefore, that NATO holds together while it rearms and regroups, the second phase of the war could begin. Dropshot contemplated an offense that would ultimately result in the occupation of the Soviet Union. Again, however, it did nothing to suggest that anyone would enjoy trying this in real life. The plan considered the various ways that the Soviet Union might have been invaded, and finds all but one of them either impractical, like a drive north from the Middle East, or useless, like an invasion of the Soviet Far East. The only way to do it is the hard way, back eastward across the north German plain and into Poland. Securing the Balkans would be necessary simply to secure this endeavor.

Having defeated the Soviet armies in Eastern Europe, the rest of the war would have resembled the German campaign of 1941, but without Hitler's mental problems. I can summarize the final stage of the war no better than by quoting Dropshot itself:

"22. In the event of war with the USSR, we should endeavor by successful military and other operations to create conditions which would permit satisfactory accomplishment of U.S. objectives without a predetermined requirement for unconditional surrender. War aims supplemental to our peacetime aims should include:

"a. Eliminating Soviet Russian domination in areas outside the borders of any Russian state allowed to exist after the war.

"b. Destroying the structure of relationships by which the leaders of the All-Union Communist Party have been able to exert moral and disciplinary authority over individual citizens, or groups of citizens, in countries not under Communist control.

"c. Assuring that any regime or regimes which may exist on traditional Russian territory in the aftermath of a war:

(1) Do not have sufficient military power to wage a war.

(2) Impose nothing resembling the present Iron Curtain over contacts with the outside world.

"d. In addition, if any Bolshevik Regime is left in any part of the Soviet Union, ensuring that it does not control enough of the military-industrial potential of the Soviet Union to enable it to wage war on comparable terms with any other regime or regimes which may exist on traditional Russian territory.

"e. Seeking to create postwar conditions which will:

(1) Prevent the development of power relationships dangerous to the security of the United States and international peace.

(2) Be conducive to the development of an effective world organization based on the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

(3) Permit the earliest practicable discontinuance within the United States of wartime controls."

This passage is not without relevance to the state of the world in 1995. Let us imagine, however, that all this has been achieved, but the year is only 1960.

(3) What would postwar history have been like?

The burden of Arnold Toynbee's great multivolumed work, "A Study of History," is that our civilization has broken down and that it is now (during the 20th century) in a "time of troubles," like the Hellenistic period in the ancient West and the Era of Contending States in China. Such periods are characterized by "world wars." In the course of them, one great power delivers a "knockout blow" to its main rival, and sooner or later goes on to establish a universal state, like the Roman Empire. The war Dropshot envisioned would have been such a blow. Actually, Toynbee thought that a third world war would probably be started by the United States and won by the Russians, "because they have a more serious attitude toward life." Be that as it may, since we are working with the U.S. war plan, let us consider what the result of a Western victory would have been.

The world of 1960 after Dropshot would have been poorer than the real world of that time. Africa and the great arc of Eurasia around Russia would have collapsed into ethnic squabbling as the reach and attention of the great powers were withdrawn. On the whole, the non-communist countries of East Asia might have been invigorated, as they were by the Korean and Vietnam Wars. However, there would have been no comparable world demand for consumer goods for these countries to exploit. They could well have experienced a war boom, followed by prolonged depressions, as their home markets slowly recovered.

China, we assume, would have been part of the losing alliance. Dropshot did not devote a great deal of attention to it. If the plan had actually been implemented, it is unlikely that country would have been the scene of major U.S. operations. However, with China's attention diverted toward supporting the Soviet war effort, it is conceivable that the U.S. might have backed a Nationalist reinvasion of southern China. It is debatable whether this would have found wide support. The Communist regime did not begin to mismanage the country significantly until the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s, a program which presumably would have been postponed in the event of a war. However, what with the stresses of a lost war and such resentment against the regime as had already been generated, it is possible that China would have fallen apart, much as it had during the warlord era of the 1920s, and as it may again in the later 1990s when Deng Xiao Peng dies.

The biggest differences between a post-Dropshot world and the actual world of 1960 would have been in Russia, Europe and the United States. Russia and Eastern Europe in the late 1950s were still recovering from the effects of World War II, and the last thing they needed was another war. In some ways, perhaps, the Dropshot war would been less damaging than the Second World War, since it was supposed to be faster and would not have been directed against civilians. The plan called for a war of tanks, fought for the most part on the plains of northern Europe. It would still have been a catastrophe, but one that would not have returned the region to 1945 levels.

Russia in 1960 might have been better able to make the transition to a market economy than it was in the 1990s, for the simple reason there was a substantial portion of the population who were already adults during the last period when free enterprise had been allowed to operate, during Lenin's "New Economic Policy" of the 1920s. It might, for instance, have been fairly simple to recreate peasant agriculture. On the other hand, Russian industry in the 1950s was even more strictly military than it was in the final stages of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Since the military occupation of Russia in 1960 would have been largely concerned with closing down the country's military potential, this would have meant closing down all but a small fraction of the country's industry. The country would have become, at least for a while, a country of peasants and priests. This prospect might warm the heart of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, but the reality might not have been sustainable.

In Western Europe, the 1950s boom would gave been cancelled. Even assuming the Dropshot war did less damage than the Second World War, still it would have been the third major war in the region in fifty years. Maybe that would have been too much. People can only be expected to rebuild so many times before they begin to despair about the future. It is hard to imagine the normal market mechanisms of savings and investment operating at all in such environment. What fool would invest money in a society that seemed to explode every 20 years? Who would even want to keep money? People would try to turn their savings into tangible assets as quickly as possible. The cloud of despondency would ultimately lift, of course, but would be greatly impeded by the factor we will consider below.

Even in America, collectivism would have triumphed. As several historians have pointed out, what we call socialism is simply the institutionalization in peacetime of the command economy measures devised by Britain and Germany to fight the First World War. These institutions would have been greatly strengthened throughout the West, but especially in the United States, by the experience of two world wars so close in occurrence. We should remember that enlightened opinion in the U.S. of the 1950s was that command economies really were superior in most was to market economies. It was universally assumed that pro-market policies could never cure underdevelopment in the Third World. Certainly the literature of the era is filled with ominous observations that the Soviet Economy was growing much faster than the U.S. economy during the same period. If the highly regimented American economy envisioned by Dropshot had actually succeeded in winning the Third World War, this attitude might have become a fixed assumption of American culture, as it did in so many other countries during the same period. Private enterprise would doubtless have continued to constitute a major share of economic activity, but it would have been so tightly regimented as to be virtually a creature of the state. And there would have been no example, anywhere on Earth, of an important country that did things differently.

The '60s, as we knew them, would also have been cancelled. Partly, of course, this would have been because the country would have been broke. Everyone would have had a job with a fixed salary, of course, but there would have been little money for cars or highways or private houses. America would have remained a country of immense, densely populated cities, most of which would have consisted of public housing. The biggest difference would have been the psychology of the younger generation. The young adults of the 1950s, who had been children during the Second World War, could not have conceived of allowing themselves the indiscipline and disrespect shown by the young adults of the actual 1960s. The "Silent Generation" of the 1950s knew from their earliest experiences that the world was a dangerous place and the only way to get through it was by cooperation and conformity. If Dropshot had occurred, their children, the babyboom children, would have been even more constrained in childhood and correspondingly more well-behaved in young adulthood. Doubtless there would still have been something of an increase in the percentage of the young in higher education in the 1960s, but the campuses would have been a sea of crewcuts and neat bobs, white shirts and sensible shoes. The popular music would not have been memorable.

The world after Dropshot would have had certain advantages, of course. Total world expenditures on the military would probably have been much smaller than was actually the case. The nuclear arms race would never have occurred. Indeed, the more alarming types of nuclear missile, those with multiple warheads, would never have been invented. It would have been a world much less cynical than the one which actually occurred. The three world wars would have provided a sense of closure which modern history has not yet achieved. This time, finally, all the great evils of the century would have been defeated. It would be unlikely to have resulted in Toynbee's universal state, at least not during the 20th century. The American people would probably have been as sick of the Adlai Stevenson Democrats after the Third World War as they were of the Roosevelt Democrats after the Second World War. The country would have kicked the victors out of office and sought to turn inward. America would not have been enthusiastic about further adventures for a long time to come.

The exhausted world I have described would doubtless have revived in a few decades. Nations would have broken out of the cultural constraints that the experience of universal conscription tend to impose on a generation. People would slowly realize that their highly regulated economies were not really keeping them safe but were really keeping them poor. There would be an episode of restructuring as technologies developed for the military were finally converted to consumer use, and old subsidized industries were allowed to die. All in all, the world of 1995 after Dropshot might have been similar to the one we see today. Still, it would have been reached at immensely greater cost, both economic and spiritual. We are not living in the best of all possible worlds, but it could easily have been worse.


Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2002-06-02: The Menace in South Asia

NagasakiEven now that the Cold War is long past, most Westerners feel horror and shame at the thought of nuclear war. This is understandable, but the possibility of mutual assured destruction, and the intensive cultural revulsion that possibility engenders in us, are the products of a particular time, place, and set of assumptions.

It took a great deal of time and effort to demonize all things nuclear. Immediately after the Second World War, there intense optimism about harnessing atomic power for the good of mankind. For example, there was Operation Plowshare, which sought a way to turn the crude destructive power of the atom bomb to more mundane purposes, much the same way TNT and other explosives became a tool of the construction and mining industries. The attitudes of 1950s America toward the power of the atom seem blithe to us now, but this is the direct result of a campaign to convince us of the utter horror and unwinnability of a nuclear war.

There was a losing side of that campaign, for which I feel some sympathy. While they lost the war of public opinion, they definitely won the actual Cold War. After the 9/11 attacks, Paul Krugman suggested creating an office of evil to help the government imagine horrible things so we would not be surprised so badly next time. This role was filled for a long time by men like Edward Teller and Herman Kahn, who were perfectly happy to think the unthinkable in order to better prepare for it. A later entry in the field was the Strategy of Technology by Possony, Pournelle, and Kane. They argued that a decisive advantage in war could be gained by the targeted pursuit of specific technologies, particularly in the Cold War, which was already a technological contest.

Arguably, this was in fact the strategy that impoverished the Soviet Union to a degree where the dissent of client states like East Germany and Poland could fatally destabilize it. However, at present, the men who brought this about are likely to be remembered for nuclear brinkmanship and warmongering rather than successfully preventing the Cold War from turning into a hot one, and achieving victory as well.

What is perhaps even less well appreciated is how different the world is now from the peak of the Cold War. The US and Russia still have a lot of nuclear weapons, but the real worry these days is that some unpleasant little excuse for a country like North Korea or Pakistan will start something nuclear. It would be bad if they did, but to see MAD as the result is a failure of the imagination, or perhaps a success of propaganda. Look at the picture that heads this post, and imagine for yourself, "this is one of only two cities ever destroyed by nuclear weapons." And then try to believe your lying eyes.

The Menace in South Asia


There are three important points about the current confrontation between India and Pakistan. The first two are commonplaces. The third has not been addressed by policy makers, at least in public.

First, it is not likely that the fighting between the two countries will go beyond border skirmishes. This is not a situation like 1914 in Europe, when strategic plans had to be carried out like clockwork if they were to be carried out at all. Furthermore, the situations of the parties are not symmetrical. While Pakistan is perhaps most to blame because of its acquiescence in the use of its territory by militants, India would be the actual aggressor in a war. That country's friends and well wishers have let the Indian government know that a war would delay India's accession to the ranks of the great powers.

Second, even if a serious invasion of Pakistan does occur, it is unlikely that the conflict will go nuclear. On the nuclear level, Pakistan would have to be the aggressor. It is hard to see what Pakistan could gain from that step. The use of tactical nuclear weapons to halt an Indian invasion could cause the Indians to escalate their goals from border security to the destruction of the Pakistani state. In any case, India will always be in a position to declare victory and withdraw. There is no necessary ladder of escalation.

Third, if there is a war and it does go nuclear, India is going to win decisively. Its traditional enemy will be dismembered and the fragments disarmed. The civilian casualties India would suffer, even in the worst-case scenarios, would be proportionately less than those suffered by Great Britain in the Blitz. The moral that the world would draw from a South Asian nuclear war is that nuclear wars are fightable and winnable.

The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union occasioned the creation, not just of new weapons systems, but of new disciplines in logic and political science. Those disciplines applied only in a historically unique situation of overwhelming firepower and comparably high levels of technical competence. Nuclear weapons began, however, as an incremental augmentation to the tactics of area bombing. A substantial amount of time passed before the Cold War competitors had the nuclear devices and the delivery systems that could threaten the existence of each other's societies. India and Pakistan are far from crossing that threshold.

Several countries around the world aspire to just the situation in South Asia, where the use of nuclear weapons is a rational option. An Indian victory would have obvious policy implications for Iran, Taiwan, the Koreas and even Japan.

Just yesterday, President George Bush made a speech at West Point in which he declared that deterrence is not enough. He is right, but few people have remarked on the scope of the police project he is proposing. Let us take a deep breath as we prepare to jump in.

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The Long View 2002-03-07: Some Nuclear Fiction

This is another early blog post that impressed me. John had very acute judgement about things such as the military potential of dirty bombs. The whole point of asymmetric warfare is that you don't have to so much as kill or even truly frighten an enemy you can cause to expend vast amounts of time and treasure attempting to counteract what you are doing. Even less well appreciated is what is likely to happen if you do truly frighten an enemy like the United States. War to the knife. No stone left standing on another. Carthago delenda est.

Some Nuclear Fiction

Just this week, we learned that the federal government had plausible information last October that a 10-kiloton warhead had been bought or stolen from a Soviet-era arsenal, and that someone was trying to smuggle it into Manhattan. The information, thank God, turned out to be wrong. Still, public officials in the governments of New York City and New York State immediately began to complain that they had not been told at the time. They insist that, hereafter, they want to be informed even of unconfirmed threats.

No they don't. Such was the state of morale last October that Manhattan would have been abandoned if the public had received an advisory of such a thing. Even if the authorities had issued no warning, but had merely taken "precautions," such as removing irreplaceable works of art from the island's museums, the news would have leaked in increments. That would have been worse, since the government would have lost credibility and the news would have gotten out anyway. It would have been the biggest man-made urban disaster in America since Sherman burned Atlanta.

Now terrorism experts are focusing less on fission bombs than on radiological weapons. "Some See Panic as Aim of Dirty Bomb," says a headline in today's New York Times. That pretty much hits the nail on the head.

An interesting historical aside is that, conceptually, radiological weapons antedate fission and fusion bombs. The first fictional atomic bomb, at least that I know of, appears in The World Set Free by H. G. Wells, which he published in 1914. The world war that the book describes starts in 1956. The atomic bombs in that war are essentially small nuclear reactors. They are dropped into cities and melt into the ground, forming small, radioactive volcanoes. They do not cause immediate mass destruction, but they do cause cities to be abandoned over a period of weeks.

Less well known is a story that Robert Heinlein wrote in 1940, under the name Anson MacDonald. Entitled "Solution Unsatisfactory," the story appeared in Astounding Science Fiction the next year. This was the sort of story that gave the FBI hysterics in those years, since it described pretty much what the Manhattan Project would soon be doing; it even mentioned an imaginary supersecret military research office dedicated to building an atomic bomb. In this story, the United States does not enter the Second World War until 1945. Also, the attempt to create a fission bomb is shelved in favor of a simpler solution. An ancillary project devises a radioactive dust that can depopulate a city with just a few bomber loads. In addition to the dusting of Berlin, there is a war with a post-Soviet state called the Eurasian Union, or E.U.

The important thing to note about these speculations is that they have been tried and found wanting. Robert Oppenheimer himself considered doing what the head of the research project in the Heinlein story does. After careful consideration, Oppenheimer abandoned the idea. So, reportedly, did the Iraqi government. There is no practical way to produce mass, immediate casualties with radiological material. It's not that potent, and it's hard to deliver.

What radiological weapons can do is create a health risk just high enough to make living in an affected area unacceptable. In the New York Times story, experts told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about scenarios in which all of Manhattan south of Central Park might have to be closed off for decades, like the area around Chernobyl. Maybe no one would be killed in the explosion that would distribute the material over the island, but the stuff would still create a hazard that exceeds federal guidelines.

We should note that those scenarios are extreme, and involve materials that terrorists probably could not obtain, or handle if they did. Nonetheless, one might create a considerable panic with ordinary radioactive medical waste.

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Prisoner's Hope Book Review

by David Feintuch

506 pages; $5.50

This is the first book in the Seafort Saga that I actually started to like Nick Seafort. He's a little older, more experienced, more jaded maybe. He is still the anguished scrupulous perfectionist, but he has finally started to apply the lesson that sometimes what an officer doesn't see is as important as what he sees.

This book follows the same structure as the others in the series, the first three-quarters of each book give Nick ample opportunity to alienate his friends, disrespect his superiors, and make new enemies, while providing the background for the enormity Nick will perpetrate at the end of the book when the fish return.

The backdrop for this story is the restive colony world of Hope Nation, an agrarian world dominated by a few powerful landowners. Since Nick cannot forswear his oath to duel the Admiral who abandoned him to die in the last book, he finds himself recuperating on shore duty, reluctantly appointed as the liaison to the landowners. Surprisingly, this is a duty he discharges well, without undue self-recriminations or creating personal enemies. Which isn't to say it goes well. Nick acquires enemies and his friends suffer, but it isn't personal. Of course, the rebellion of the colonists is complicated by the return of the fish, who care little for the twists of politics, other than perhaps in having a sense of tragic timing.

John Reilly noted this series is indelibly marked as a product of the 1990s.

On the other hand, there are many things about the Seafort Saga that mark it as a work of the 1990s. Some of these are scientific fashions, such as the notion that animal life in general and intelligent life in particular are so improbable that the human race is unique in the universe. (The alien menace, as we will see, leaves something to be desired.) The physics of faster-than-light travel may owe something to the theories of the cult-physicist, David Bohm. Aside from science, the series reflects the period of its composition in such matters as the relentlessly coed military and the fact that socialism is absent from the conceptual universe of the characters. Indeed, the most interesting difference from the science fiction of fifty years earlier is the change in the cultural trajectory of the future history the author imagines. Mid-century science fiction usually assumed that the alternative to secular modernity was barbarism. The world of the Seafort Saga, in contrast, really is postmodern in a way that will remind readers of Oswald Spengler’s forecast of the “Second Religiousness.”

Somehow, the best literary representations of a point in time are the futures imagined in science fiction. The aspect of Prisoner's Hope that struck me most strongly this way is the UN resolution banning so much as the mention of nuclear weapons. Unlike the somewhat nominal capital offense of blasphemy, this ban is enforced with deadly seriousness. Like bomb jokes in an airport, even using the phrase can end in the hangman's noose. When the Cold War was fresher in memory, everyone took this sort of thing more seriously, but after the spectacular failure to find any sort of nuclear program in Iraq after 9/11, public interest is waning.

Nick turns to the forbidden nuclear weapons out of desperation, both personal and professional, fully expecting to pay for his sins, personal and professional, with his life. Of course, it doesn't turn out that way. In a twist, Nick ends up covered in glory by trying to protect his friends from the [perceived] enormity of his crime. If he been more true to his iron code, the ultimate sacrifice he inspires in others could have been given its due. Providence never gives Nick a break.

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