The National Insecurity State

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Mr. Chernus is professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a writer for the History News Service.

Fifty years ago this month, American voters chose Dwight D. Eisenhower as their next president. Though few realized it at the time, they also chose a vision of America as a nation permanently in peril. The Eisenhower era created a state of national insecurity that has lasted for half a century.

The Bush administration constantly voices the nation's hope for security. Yet its actions plunge us even deeper into insecurity. This administration alienates allies, expands our list of enemies and defines any potential competitor as a mortal threat.

The national insecurity state is our history. But it need not be our destiny. During the presidential campaign of 1952, the Republican Eisenhower attacked the Democrats' view that the Cold War would soon reach a climax. The Democrats wanted massive military spending to prepare for the final battle. Ike argued that too much spending would break the national bank. It was better to assume that the Cold War might go on indefinitely and find a level of spending the nation could afford for the long haul.

As president, Eisenhower urged the nation to expect the communist enemy to be around for 20, 50 or 60 years. In 1953, a White House aide wrote a secret memo spelling out the new administration's goal: to persuade all Americans to accept "the age of peril" as "the new and to all intents permanent normalcy."

Eisenhower did just that, and the message stuck long after he was gone. Throughout the Cold War era, most of the U.S. public assumed that America faced an evil that could never be eradicated. This seemed to justify a permanent national security state. Since the enemy would always loom beyond our borders, however, there was no way to feel really secure. The permanent "normalcy" would actually be a state of national insecurity.

Though the Cold War is long over, it is still easy to feel that we are in an endless "age of peril." In announcing the war on terrorism, President Bush declared it "a task that does not end." Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld agreed that we "surely will not" eliminate terrorism. Using the same term as Eisenhower's aide, Vice President Dick Cheney called this "a new normalcy." Cheney explained: "There's not going to be an end date when we're going to say, 'There, it's all over with.'"

In fact, the Bush administration ensures continuing war with its ever-growing enemies list. Now it's no longer just Bin Laden and Al-Qaida we must fear. Nor is it just the ill-defined network of terrorists and so-called rogue states that Bush speechwriters dubbed the "axis of evil." According to the recent Bush report, "The National Security Strategy of the United States," we are threatened by any nation that might resist the spread of free trade or seek military strength equal to our own.

The Cold War fears of the Eisenhower era were heightened by illusory Soviet boasts about that country's military prowess. The managers of the national insecurity state eagerly embraced those boasts to justify their own policies. The Bush administration, too, frightens the public with unrealistic warnings of danger. Its "axis of evil" is actually a trio of pitifully weak states, which can easily be bombed into submission.

The Bush policies are hardly a replay of Eisenhower's, however. The president and his advisers do not see permanent insecurity as a way to control the military budget. On the contrary, they call for major increases, the kind that Eisenhower said would break our bank. Yet their call stirs little debate in a nation so frightened.

The fears of the Eisenhower era came from the belief that we would always have a military competitor. The fears of the Bush era come from just the opposite belief: that we must never have any competitor, that the very existence of a competitor would be the main reason for feeling insecure.

If so, we are condemned to eternal insecurity. As every great boxer has learned, no matter how big and tough you are, there is always some young challenger who will not rest until he gets a shot at the champ. Given the unilateralist swagger of the current administration, challengers will probably appear sooner rather than later. The same swagger will discourage allies from coming to our aid.

Although there is vigorous debate about war in Iraq, the larger shape of the Bush security program evokes little public comment. Perhaps, fifty years after Ike's victory, the national insecurity state feels like the only world we could possibly inhabit. Perhaps we have forgotten how to seek, or even hope for, a sense of real security.

Real security does not come from dropping bombs on enemies or from barring our gates against them. It comes from a new vision of national humility and international cooperation that is still waiting to be born. Fifty years of insecurity is enough.

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Ike, a seasoned combat soldier and military leader, also warned us of the dangers of the "military industrial complex."

W., draft-dodger and deserter, hung up the "Mission Accomplished" sign prematurely last year. The only mission he has cared about for the past 4 years was not however accomplished for another 18 months after dodging La Jolla surfers to land on that nearly beached carrier: early this past Wednesday morning.

Charles Edward Heisler - 11/12/2004

I think the Pol Pot reference is a tweak of the Left's belief that all America needs to do is back off and good things will happen. I excuse many on the Left for forgetting Pot's place in the discussion--after all, while the Left was congratulating itself for getting us out of Vietnam, Pol Pot was slaughtering millions in Southeast Asia--something that would not have happened had we prevailed in the region. Many of us on the Right like to remind the Liberals about Cambodia when the Leftist hubris emerges. Always amazes me how Pol Pot and the Killing Fields are always absent in Liberal rhetoric--selective memory I guess.

Arnold Shcherban - 11/8/2004

Mr. Lloyd,

No Red Army was not "illusory", and the Soviets would have been completely insane if after two major invasions (especially the 1941-1945 one) they had not taken major care about their defense. And I don't quite agree with Mr. Chernus suggested cause of the Cold War era American goverments "fears", i.e. "Soviet boasts about that country's military prowess".
However, we also know now (and the ones who were involved knew even then) that despite its quantitative "prowess" (the very one you put forward in your comment), the quality, effectiveness and precision of the respective Soviet war machinery and equipment in almost all areas of military technology was significantly lower than the American ones and it is the latter factors that count the most in the modern warfare. (Though I don't discount millions of victims of the potential nuclear confrontation here, in US.)
What I consider the most relevant (which is also a well-known) fact (at least by now), that this country not only almost invariably led the armament race without facing a half of REAL national security concerns that Soviet did (you just give me a hint and I will elaborate on them), but also created one of the greatest and most feared myths of the 20th century: myth of extreme Soviet agressiveness and their plans of attacking the US and their Western European allies to scare this country citizens to the full benefits of the very military-industrial complex Eisenhower had warned them about.
Meanwhile, talking of the Cold War period(1948-1991), it was the US whose military fought two major wars abroad (Korea and Vietnam) and, thousands of miles away from it own territor and "officially" invaded at the least three: Guatemala, Grenada, Panama for the explicit purpose of
the government and regime change without any conceivable
"national security" excuse (the ones that were forwarded
then occured to be lie and fraud), while the "evil empire"
fought only one major war in Afghanistan and never invaded
any Third World, and by definition - incomparably weaker in military strength - country located far away from its territory.

Pol Pot..?! What did he have to do with the strength
of the Red Army or with the threat to the American national security? Would you, please, keep closer to the topic at hand?

Michael Harrington Weems - 11/7/2004


The mission accomplished sign was in reference to major combat, which was finished at the time. The resistance and insurgency, by definition, are what occurs after/in place of major combat.

Secondly, while it is obvious you are both intelligent and learned, your continuing insistence on sprinkling such obvious falsehoods (such as the draft-dodger/deserter) really undermines the message you are trying to convey.

Joining the National Guard is not draft-dodging and there is no proof that desertion happened, even if his attendance may be suspect. When I first read your comment it was Pres. Clinton who came to mind. If leaving the country and writing a letter begging off from his ROTC committment wasn't draft-dodging and/or desertion it came every close.

I understand you dislike Pres. Bush, and I have shed my own blood for your right to feel that way and express your opinion. I just hate to see valid concerns ignored because they are interlaced with such caustic rhetoric. You will have a much larger and willing audience if you could stick to the facts.

With respect,

MHWeems, Major(r), USAF

Alec Lloyd - 11/13/2002

Mr. Chernus writes: “The Cold War fears of the Eisenhower era were heightened by illusory Soviet boasts about that country's military prowess.”

Excuse me, the Red Army was “illusory?” The 55,000 tanks and thousands of nuclear warheads were a mere figment of Ike’s imagination? Whew.

Here I though all those SCUDs, MiG, T-55s, T-62 and Kalashikovs the Soviets spread around the world were actually REAL.

So Pol Pot was only a dream after all…what a relief.

Bill Heuisler - 11/12/2002

Dr. Chernus - a professor of religion - comes as close to the pacifist ideal as any scholar writing today; his writings have consistantly espoused the idea that man begins with innate virtue and evolves inevitably to benevolence if given the chance...and properly inoffensive neighbors.
The good will is admirable; the innocence is dangerously naive.
In past articles he has attempted to give rational causation to Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and 1939 Germany's paranoia. His method was to show the countries attacked had - to greater or lesser degree - provoked the aggression.
Dr. Chernus writes after 9/11:
"Why not withdraw our troops and our sanctions, if it will insure our safety? Perhaps it has something to do with the most vital interest of all, our linkage to the world's largest pools of oil (one in Saudi and the other just north of Afghanistan). Perhaps we should call the operation "Enduring Free Trade" or "Enduring Free Enterprise." Is it worth risking children's lives, and the lives of millions of Afghanis, to stabilize the global interests and linkages that preserve our way of life? Shouldn't we at least have a national debate about it, before the next terrorist attack?"
No blood for oil. Sounds reasonable until examined closely.
So, we will be at fault for the next terrorist attack because of our lust for oil? But equilibrium of argument fails here. To presuppose the rectitude of our future assailant based on our wickedness is illogical given the original premise. The PC scenario denies Chernus' original virtue only to Americans.
The professor's "new vision of national humility" depends on the good will of young Muslims who drink, party and whore the night before they slit young women's throats with box-cutter knives.
Sorry, professor, I don't share your optimism.
Bill Heuisler