Sociopath hawk Richard Perle looking like a sickly Yoda
It wasn’t just turtle-necked eggheads like Carl Sagan who knew the weapons could never be used. Rhodes shows that despite efforts to get around it, establishment thinking throughout the Cold War always ran up against the fact that “all roads lead to MAD (Mutal Assured Destruction).” Rhodes quotes Henry Kissinger at a 1974 Moscow press conference in a rare instance of a major official speaking the bald truth about the arms race. “One of the questions which we have to ask ourselves,” said Kissinger, “is what in the name of God is strategic superiority? What is the significance of it, politically, militarily, operationally, at these levels of numbers? What do you do with it?”
For a radical fringe in Washington, the question was not rhetorical.
The most memorable cameos in Rhodes’ narrative are provided by some familiar names: Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld. All helped drive the last and most dangerous phase of the arms race and undermine attempts to stop and reverse it the 1970s and 80s.
But first there was Paul Nitze, the godfather of neoconservative nuclear politics. Although he would later convert, like Kissinger, to abolitionism at the end of his life, Nitze was a dark multi-generational presence hovering over the important nuclear debates of the 20th-century.
He left his defining mark in 1950 at the State Department by authoring NSC-68, the cornerstone document of the early Cold War. In Manichean terms, Nitze argued the urgency of countering the Soviet threat in Europe with a massive arms build-up, including new nuclear weapons. To accomplish this, NSC-68 called for the institutionalization of a national security state, with the defense budget decoupled from the federal budget for the first time in American history. As Nitze’s accomplice in NSC-68, Dean Acheson, would later admit, the point of the policy paper was to hype the Soviet threat so as to “bludgeon the mass mind of ‘top government’.”
In other words, threat inflation. The arms race began with a self-conscious lie.
Threat inflation would be the modus operandi for American nuclear hawks for the remainder of the Cold War. And nobody practiced it like Nitze’s most studied protégés. Two of the most important of these flocked to Nitze in the summer of 1969, when he set up a committee to lobby against a missile defense treaty (which Nixon signed in 1972 and Bush crumpled up in 2001). For writing and research, Nitze hired two precocious conservative graduate students: Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle. They lost the ABM Treaty fight, but gained a taste for politics and power. Both would return to capital after their nuclear nerd summer of ’69 to begin their Washington careers.
It wasn’t much later that another anti-détente duo began their rise. When Gerald Ford named Don Rumsfeld White House chief of staff and later Secretary of Defense, he enabled not just Rumsfeld but his shadowy sidekick and yes-man Dick Cheney. The pair would use their influence to wage war on détente from within and without: By attempting to undermine Kissinger’s SALT II negotiations, and by supporting outside efforts to discredit moderate CIA estimates on Soviet strength and intentions. The face of this latter effort was “Team B,” the famous grouping of hawks who argued détente was putting America at risk and called a “full-court press” against the Soviets. The Team B report set the stage for Reagan’s 1980 anti-détente campaign and subsequent arms build-up. It was also, writes Rhodes, “the origin of Cheney’s alliance with the loose association of blusterous…Democratic and Republican radicals who came to be called the neoconservatives.”