Structures of Power and National Security: An Interview with Gareth Porter
by Gary Corseri / October 31st, 2007
Gary Corseri: I want to focus on your book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, with its exposition of policy-making during the Vietnam War—and we’ll consider how that process applies today. I’ll ask you about current world crises—Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Israel/Palestine. But first, I’d like to know how you come to have the authority to write about the policy-making process?
Gareth Porter: I don’t know that I have the authority—that’s subjective. I think I have the right background, though: the curiosity of the historian to figure out what actually happened—to solve mysteries or puzzles—in terms of American policy, specifically, policy towards war; and then, International Politics. I have an interest in policy on a theoretical level. I studied under Hans Morgenthau at the University of Chicago. Morgenthau had turned against the Vietnam War by then. I considered myself a realist, taking the idea of the Balance of Power seriously—that nation-states act in terms of power relationships. That was really the only way to understand the behavior of states in international politics. Obviously, that played a role in the way I looked at, in retrospect, the Vietnam War.
GC: Perils was published in 2005. Would you describe the theme, or themes?
GP: There are really two interrelated themes.
When I began my research, I understood that power relations had something to do with the road to war in Vietnam. But, it seemed, the pertinent literature had ignored that. I had a strong sense from my reading of Cold War history, specifically of Vietnam, and particularly my editing of a two-volume documentary history of the Vietnam War back in the late 70s—I had an intuition that the Communist world was much weaker than had been reflected in the history of the Vietnam War, and the Cold War. I began my research convinced that was a key to understanding how and why the US stumbled into war. That was my first theme: that power relations matter, that there was not a real balance of power between the US and Soviet Union during this critical period from 1954 to 1965, but, rather, a profound imbalance in which the US strategically dominated the Soviet Union. It’s clear that the Soviet Union was very much on the defensive. And the US, on the offensive, had a freedom of action the Soviets didn’t have. And that played a key role in shaping US decision-making on Vietnam.
The second theme, which I discovered as I read the documents, is that there was a big difference in the responses to Vietnam between Johnson and Kennedy on the one hand and their national security advisers on the other. I go back to Eisenhower and I concluded that he was totally opposed to intervention, but that a number of people in his administration were pro-military intervention. So, there was a conflict there as well.
GC: But Ike handled it better?
GP: Eisenhower was very strong dealing with national security issues, very self-confident. He was able to quash any pressures for war. But, in the case of Kennedy and Johnson, there were inexorable pressures from the key national security officials of their administrations to commit US forces in Vietnam.
GC: What accounts for this difference between the perspectives of the president and his own advisers?
GP: National security advisers define their role as managing US power. That’s the main thing they do, whereas the president, inevitably, has a broader range of issues. He has to put the advancement of US power interests alongside other issues. He’s much more sensitive to the costs of committing forces.
GC: And the president is always balancing his own perception of domestic politics.
GP: That, of course, is true, and it can cut both ways. In fact, what I conclude with both Kennedy and Johnson is that domestic politics was part of the pressure on them to make an accommodation with their national security advisers in taking steps towards war.
GC: Your book depicts the tension between policy-making on the one hand, and “reality” on the other. I’m not talking about the kind of reality some Bush administration hack told reporter Ron Suskind that the U.S., as an empire, had the power to define; rather, about the kind that can bite us on the ass when we’re not paying attention. For example, after 14 months of struggle with his own advisers, Johnson agrees to bomb North Vietnam. But, in the interval, two new realities had emerged which would change the outcome. Can you tell us what happened?
GP: Between the beginning of the bombing and the build-up of ground forces, the Viet Cong had become much stronger than the national security advisers had anticipated; they were able to advance much farther and faster against the South Vietnamese army. Our advisers had assumed that the Communist forces in the south were not strong enough to advance dramatically without help from the north.
Second, when the U.S. began its build-up of ground forces, the assumption was that the threat of even heavier bombing, including the threat of the use of nuclear weapons, would deter the North Vietnamese from countering. That again was a profound under-estimation of the determination and capabilities of the North Vietnamese. Basically, there were two fundamental miscalculations, based on the notion that US supremacy, at the strategic and at the conventional power level, would ensure that the United States could fight a low-level war and keep it from getting out of control.
GC: Others have written about the bureaucratic nightmare that endures through changes of administration and/or party. But, I don’t think anyone has documented the twists and turns as well. Your 403-page book has over 120 pages of notes, bibliography and index. And I think the vital role of your book lies not only in helping us to understand that murky and parlous era, but in providing a template for understanding our present crises … Can you talk a little more about how politics enters into policy-making? I’m thinking about the notion of collective responsibility.
GP: Right. That’s an idea I feel strongly about.
The assumption that diplomatic historians of the US have shared–I would say almost universally–in writing about Vietnam is that the Constitutional power of the president is absolute in making war. The idea that the president does not make the definitive decision to go to war is so outside the realm of possibility that it’s dismissed. I think there’s a perfectly logical explanation for that: diplomatic historians write within a paradigm in which it’s assumed that policy-making is guided by the Constitution, that there’s a logical relationship between legal responsibilities on the one hand and political reality on the other. That’s why it’s so difficult for them to imagine that the president is really not the critical force in powering the US towards war.
In 1962, before the Cuban missile crisis, but after Kennedy had failed to take strong action against Castro and the Soviet Union when it was discovered that there were Soviet military personnel in Cuba, the Republicans then mounted a very politically effective campaign, through the media and through Republican spokespeople to attack Kennedy for being soft on Communism and weak in the face of this alleged threat from the Soviet power on our doorstep. And, there’s no doubt that Kennedy was chastened by this. And that played a role in his taking such strong measures in the Cuban missile crisis, in a sense to risk nuclear war (although we now know that he had taken steps to make sure that would not result). Kennedy felt strong political pressure, he felt his presidency could be weakened by Republicans in a situation where they could attack him on a key issue of national security. I think that caused him to feel he had to have his own national security advisers fully on board to impress the public that he was not making any policy moves to avoid the use of force in Vietnam that did not have the full support of his top national security advisers. The same thing was true, even more so, for Johnson because he was even deeper into a situation where choices were either to face the “Who lost South Vietnam?” syndrome, or to send troops. In that situation, he felt the need, even more than Kennedy, to have his top national security advisers—the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff—at least neutralized if not supporting him.
GC: That’s how politics works vis-a-vis the two-party system. But, you describe another phenomenon—the way politics are internalized inside an administration, so that Kennedy had to worry about his own people; you cite examples where Averill Harriman, for example, was practically sabotaging some of Kennedy’s efforts to open new channels of communication with the North Vietnamese. So, I wonder if you could focus on the role of the national security bureaucracy. Where do they come from? What are the origins, the operation and evolution? Most Americans do not perceive that our government works this way. How did it happen?
GP: This is the reality that dawned on me as I was researching this book. We have been virtually unaware of the extent to which the national security bureaucracy has taken on a crucial degree of power over policy; in effect, over issues of war and peace. It’s both military and civilian in character. Both are extremely important to the power we’re talking about. They’re both able to maneuver, to use methods to pressure the president, to narrow his options so it’s more likely he’ll accept their options.
We know that there are historical cases where the military leadership has been against using force—more so than civilian leadership. But in the case of Vietnam, it’s very clear: the military leadership, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon, the top officials in the State Department and National Security Council officials were all leaning towards military intervention. The question is precisely the one you ask: What’s the character of this political entity which developed during the Cold War, which has sprung up as a major power center that did not exist before the Cold War and which exercises so much influence over policy? My key concern is that the national security bureaucracy does not act in the abstract interest of the US, or the American people–although I think it believes it does—but, rather, in ways that further the personal and institutional interests of the advisers themselves.
GC: The implications of which are enormous, illusion-shattering …
GP: It means that the military services are concerned with maintaining and adding to their missions in a war; and when there’s an opportunity to fight a war where they feel they can accomplish those ends, they will do so. For individuals who are heads of bureaucracies—the State Department, the Defense Department, the National Security staff of the White House—they have a personal agenda to advance or expand the power of the US and to thereby add to their own status, their own prestige, their own political positions, their career c.v.’s, and various personal interests. That causes officials to push American power forward.
GC: We think that we have a balanced system, that we have checks and balances between the three branches of our government. But, in fact, the balance within the executive branch, which has become the most powerful, the most important in this age of the imperial presidency—that balance is very tenuous.
GP: Very tenuous, indeed. And, this is one of those occasions when we can skip forward, and note how the relationship between the president and his key national security advisers under the Bush administration represents a caricature of a president who is under pressure from his advisers to go to war.
Now, Bush, of course, is not Kennedy and he’s not Johnson. He’s much more willing to be manipulated. He’s a man who has no experience in foreign policy, who knows nothing about foreign policy and is really not interested in learning; therefore, he leans on his advisers far more heavily. So, even though Bush is ideologically attuned to the neo-conservatives, he is nevertheless subject to the manipulation of these officials who have their own agendas. And, we see in the case of the neo-conservatives the clearest example of a group of national security advisers who came into office with their own idea of what they wanted to accomplish—a very ambitious goal. And we have an exaggerated version of the kind of dynamics that I describe in our march to war in Vietnam.
GC: I’d like to continue to probe this bureaucratic nightmare, this meta-government. You said this began with the Cold War. I might put it back even further in the Roosevelt Administration; but, a long time ago I read that Truman had established the National Security State, and that we were no longer a republic. Do you care to dive into that?
GP: I think it’s true that the beginning of a policy of exploitation of a power advantage began in the Truman Administration. It was not so self-evident as it was during the Eisenhower Administration, where I show that in the first Indochina crisis of 1954, Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles were acutely aware of the great advantage that they had over the Soviet Union and China, and very clearly exploited that to pressure the Communist side—the Soviets, Chinese and Viet Minh—to accept a settlement at the Geneva Conference of 1954 that certainly did not reflect the local power balance within Indochina. But, I would say that it was during the Truman administration that we had this huge military build-up which put an enormous distance between the US and Soviet Union. It was that obvious power gap that gave the US an incentive to act more aggressively.
I think what you’re referring to is that the institutions—the military structure, the military bases network—existed essentially by the end of World War II, that we were already in most of these bases, particularly in East Asia then. So it was a result of that war that the US was able to exert the kind of power it did—particularly in East Asia, where the Pacific Ocean became virtually an “American Lake”. I agree that the problem began even before the Cold War, but then it was exacerbated as soon as the US carried out the first major military build-up before the Korean War, which accelerated during that war.
GC: If the process you describe is correct, concerning this government by bureaucracy, what does that tell us about our democracy? Is our president anything but a figurehead?
GP: It depends on the individual. There’s no doubt that individuals who end up in the White House, because of their background in becoming politicians, have been, since Eisenhower, individuals who are more readily willing to accommodate these institutions—particularly the military. Given their incredible power—again, I refer primarily to the military services—without somebody who is extremely determined, with a firm idea about how to prevent these institutions from being able to implement their own agendas, the president is not going to be successful in holding out against them. I think Eisenhower was the last president who was even partially successful in resisting the pressure of the military. And, of course, the military services were associated with a very powerful industrial lobby which worked through Congress. You have not just a military-industrial complex, but a military-industrial-Congressional complex. And when Eisenhower uttered his famous injunction about the military-industrial complex, he was not talking about some abstract principle; he was talking about something he had personally experienced. They had tried to force Eisenhower to go along with their own preferred national security policies, in terms of budget and programs, and Eisenhower had rebuffed them. But, they attacked him mercilessly. The representatives of the air force, in the Senate, particularly, were very critical of Eisenhower. They accused him of being soft on Communism and soft on the Soviet Union. And he never forgot that, and that was an expression of great bitterness on Eisenhower’s part.
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