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When Old Hawks Retract Their Talons

May 29, 2012 ·

The annals of national security are replete with retired generals expressing second thoughts about how militarized the United States has become.

In recent years, the annals of national security are replete with retired generals expressing second thoughts about how militarized the United States has become. The latest is Gen. (Ret.) James Cartwright, who chairs the Global Zero movement's U.S. Nuclear Policy Commission, which recently issued a report titled Modernizing U.S. Nuclear Strategy, Force Structure and Posture. It's a radical departure from what you'd expect from a former chief of STRATCOM (the United States Strategic Command), which includes the U.S. nuclear-weapons arsenal.

At Foreign Policy, J. Peter Scoblic writes that "Cartwright is challenging the nuclear status quo in a way that few Washington elites with such credibility on the subject have dared to do." The report, Scoblic explains, argues that the United States could

… reduce the number of nuclear weapons it deploys by two-thirds and the number of warheads it keeps in reserve by nearly 90 percent. [This] would force the United States to step across a line that separates existing nuclear doctrine from one that it has done its damnedest to avoid for decades, shifting from "counterforce" [targeting the nuclear weapons of, for instance, Russia] toward "countervalue" [other targets, as Scoblic explains below].

By suggesting that the United States limit its deployable weapons to several hundred, he has explicitly chosen a number that would eliminate the U.S. ability to conduct a preemptive, decapitating strike against [Russia's] nuclear weapons and eliminate its ability to retaliate. … Instead, [the wepons'] greatest utility would shift primarily to destroying larger, softer targets -- economic hubs, military-industrial facilities, population centers, and the like -- in retaliation for an enemy strike. As Cartwright told me, this would represent a "significant departure from our existing posture." It's much closer to a "countervalue" strategy.

As Scoblic concedes, "Calls for lower numbers are not new, certainly not from groups dedicated to nuclear disarmament like the one Cartwright worked with -- and not even among former heads of Strategic Command."

He's referring to one of the most dramatic examples of a former general calling for the United States to reconsider arming itself to its teeth. In 1997, Gen. George Lee Butler  created an impact when he delivered a speech and presented a disarmament manifesto signed by 60 retired generals and admirals from nuclear states. Among other things, he said:

"We need to think more boldly in terms of immediate initiatives. … We need to move beyond the sort of lock step, numbers-driven, phase-down, years-at-a-time, arms-control reductions of the cold war.''

One of the few American generals to request the use of nuclear weapons after World War II was Douglas MacArthur while he was chief of the U.N. Command during the Korean War. Part of his rationale? As I posted recently: "Sweeten up my B-29 force."

It's not commonly known, but even MacArthur mellowed. After the Bay of Pigs, President John F. Kennedy met with MacArthur in a courtesy call that extended to the whole afternoon because of Kennedy's intrigue by what MacArthur had to say. Kenneth O'Donnell reported for Life Magazine in 1970:

MacArthur implored the president to avoid a U.S. military build-up in Vietnam, or any other part of the Asian mainland, because he felt that the domino theory was ridiculous in the nuclear age. MacArthur went on to point out that there were domestic problems -- the urban crisis, the ghettos, the economy -- that should have far more priority than Vietnam.

MacArthur regaled Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, with similar advice. In MacArthur: Volume III, Triumph and disaster, 1945-1964 by Doris Clayton James wrote:

President Lyndon Johnson (a Democrat) once visited the ailing Douglas MacArthur (a Republican) at his Waldorf Astoria Hotel Tower residence in New York. Johnson sought the advice of the old commander about the Vietnam War shortly before the general’s death in 1964. Specifically, the President asked MacArthur about the fast expanding Vietnam War and what the increasing US military presence should do.

MacArthur’s lecture was brief. He said the US should not get involved in any kind of war on the Asian mainland because it has no known boundaries. The old warrior specifically referred to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), and Thailand as countries without fixed boundaries, but separated only by deep ravines, rivers, and rain forests.

Most retired generals who share the perspective they've gained on how militarized the United States has become are marginalized. But when someone of the stature of MacArthur speaks, it seems to at least give presidents pause. The equivalent today would be if current CIA head and full-time celebrity-general James Petraeus issued cautionary words about our national-security policy. Unfortunately, he neither gives any indication of fading away nor of backing down from his hawkish stances.