What Are “National Defense” And “National Security?”

     In the midst of the Sturm und Drang over current budget negotiations – is it really a “negotiation” when one side refuses to come to the table at all? – it struck me that a great part of the supposed national consensus about national defense and that other great shibboleth of the power brokers, national security, could stand some scrutiny. Both those conceptions shape our ideas about what our military establishment is for, how large it should be, how it should be structured, and what arrangements must prevail within our alliances and with our adversaries. The consensus was stable at one time, or at least it appeared to be. That stability, whether apparent or real, is absent today.


     During the first decades after the end of World War II – i.e., the period most commentators routinely call “postwar,” even though we’ve had a few other wars since then – there was an appearance of consensus about:

  • What and whom we should worry about;
  • Why those worries were important;
  • What we should do about them.

     The “bipolar world” seemed terribly clear in those years. The stasis in post-Yalta Europe, the standoff on the Korean peninsula, and the grudging acquiescence by the USSR to American hegemony over the Western Hemisphere and the Atlantic Ocean all contributed to a tableau of two nuclear-armed superstates, each poised to leap at the first sign of aggressive intent from the other, that had carved the globe into “spheres of influence” they would nominally respect. The picture had its fuzzy spots, but on the whole the public accepted it, which greased the tracks for the interests that strove, often quite successfully, to profit from it.

     Emblematic of the “bipolar world” was the stare-down we call the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviets attempted to breach the informal boundary that separated “their” sphere from “ours.” “We” acted in “defense” of “our” “national security.” It was supposedly a victory for American diplomacy and American power. But the story, though the details are today public, has never been fully appreciated by the majority of Americans.

     In point of fact, the Khrushchev-led Politburo was frightened by American nuclear arms stationed at forward bases in Middle Europe and Turkey. The Jupiter-C intermediate range missiles in Turkey were of special concern to them. Their attempt to emplace similar missiles in Cuba was a kind of balancing measure. Moreover, it succeeded: the Kennedy Administration removed the Jupiter-Cs from Turkey soon after the Soviet missiles had been removed from Cuba. Whether that was an explicit part of the agreements that ended the standoff remains unknown to all but few who were inside the process.

     The details didn’t really matter to the electorate. What mattered to the popular perception of the “bipolar world” was the image of American warships embargoing Cuba against further Soviet ships, and the apparent Soviet withdrawal of their attempt to breach “our hemisphere.” It reinforced the general conception of the “bipolar world,” and the “two scorpions in a bottle” mutual-suicide nature of any ultimate confrontation between us.


     The Vietnam conflict put harsh punctuation to the “bipolar world.” American involvement in that conflict was presented to the public as the defense of an ally – South Vietnam – against a Soviet-backed Communist insurgency. At first the importance of Communist China to the war was understated, as China had not yet become a major factor in reportage and opinion writing about international affairs.

     Once again, certain details about the genesis of our involvement in southeast Asia were either understated or completely concealed. The importance of the 1954 debacle at Dien Bien Phu, in which American air and logistical support was first seriously involved in Vietnam, is generally not appreciated. That battle was the one on which all subsequent American involvement was predicated, though only two Americans perished there and all other American losses were of materiel only.

     But why was there any American involvement there at all?

     Smith: In your book you seem to suggest that our Government came to the aid of the French in Indochina not because we approved of what they were doing but because we needed their support for our policies in regard to NATO and Germany. Is that a fair conclusion?

     Mr. Acheson: Entirely fair. The French blackmailed us. At every meeting when we asked them for greater effort in Europe they brought up Indochina and later North Africa. One discovers in dealing with the French that they expect their allies to accept their point of view without question on every issue. They asked for our aid for Indochina but refused to tell me what they hoped to accomplish or how. Perhaps they didn’t know. They were obsessed with the idea of what you have you hold. But they had no idea how to hold it. I spent I don’t know how many hours talking with the French about the necessity of getting local support for what they were trying to do. We told them about our success in training Koreans. We offered to send Americans from Korea to help train the Vietnamese. But the French refused. They wanted nothing to detract from French control. We urged them to allow more and more scope to the political activities of the Vietnamese. They did not take our advice. I thought it was possible to do something constructive with Bao Dai — not much, but something.

     [1969 Interview of former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, presented in full here.]

     Had it not been that the Eisenhower State Department felt it critical to solidify French participation in NATO – ultimately, this proved a disappointment – the U.S. would not have participated at Dien Bien Phu at all, and thus would have been extremely unlikely to involve itself thereafter. And even though the cracks in the “bipolar world” were becoming large enough for anyone alert to the international news to appreciate, the public perception of a united Western European front against the Iron Curtain was what the political class deemed supremely important.


     The left-liberal takeover of the federal government in the wake of the Watergate scandal, the fall of South Vietnam to the North’s invading army, and the overall Carter malaise characterized what historian Paul Johnson has called “America’s suicide attempt.” The inclination among Americans generally to disengage from global conflicts lasted until it was shaken by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the fall of Iran’s Shah Reza Pahlavi, and the infamous Iranian “hostage crisis.” The combination was a great part of the propulsion for the ascent of Ronald Wilson Reagan to the presidency.

     In short, we’d had a taste of being a second-class power, one that other powers could insult and injure without undue penalty, and we didn’t like it. Reagan told us things could, should, and must be otherwise – and he followed through. Yet essential to his vision and instrumental to his methods was the perpetuation of a largely “bipolar world:” one in which the American-Soviet contretemps loomed above all others. Though there was some room in the Reaganite vision for other, lesser enemies and conflicts, those others were either subordinated to the standoff against the Soviets or treated as minor sideshows, where a mere flexure of our military muscles would gain the day.

     While the famous Reagan military buildup didn’t approach the level to which the U.S. had militarized for World War II, it did convey a sense of a superpower reborn, or at least revived, such that the Soviets had better “look out.” Reagan’s October 1986 showdown against Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik was as emblematic of that era as the Cuban Missile Crisis was to the Fifties and Sixties. Gorbachev was terrified of two things: American economic might, which was steadily being transformed into renewed military preeminence, and the Strategic Defense Initiative, which Gorbachev feared would reduce the Soviet Union to Third World status. Reagan’s refusal to give on either of those things perfectly expressed his “we win and they lose” approach to the Cold War. As the saying goes, “you can’t knock success:” it did result in the fall of the Soviet Union and its replacement by a (temporarily) more benign Confederation of Independent States.

     It also reinstated the popular conception of the “bipolar world.” When the Soviet Union collapsed, that was replaced by the unipolar, or “hyperpower” world of the Nineties and Naughties, in which the U.S. stood as the supreme martial entity, supposedly capable of policing the entire globe.

     It is unclear whether most Americans believed that the U.S. should accept that role, or should act as if it had been somehow conferred upon us. It’s at least as unclear whether most Americans would agree to it today.


     While the George W. Bush Administration’s Middle Eastern democracy initiatives were well intentioned, they were foredoomed by the cultural matrix into which they were introduced. That became apparent (to me, at least) when the supervising American authority agreed that Islam as a principal source of guidance to Iraqi law would be written into the new Iraqi constitution. After that, no progress was possible, and no progress was made. The subsequent failure of Iraq to coalesce around a stable post-Ba’athite political order was what made possible the rise of Barack Hussein Obama, with all that has entailed.

     The Obama era has been one of undisguised American retreat from global influence. The U.S. is no longer a power whose interests or desires other powers must include in their decision making. It isn’t solely about Obamunist diplomatic weakness or unwillingness to threaten the use of force. The enervation of our military and the popular distaste for new international engagements play at least as great a part.

     What has come about is not a mere readjustment of our will or ambitions to unfortunate budgetary realities. It also involves a reconception, both among the political elite and among Americans generally, of the world order and our place in it. It makes a sharp contrast to George H. W. Bush’s dreams of a “new world order.”


     I intend the above material, much of which will be prior knowledge to an intelligent Gentle Reader of Liberty’s Torch, to act as a backdrop to the prevalent conceptions of national defense and national security. I contend that our retreat from assertiveness in our international engagements is coupled to a shift in those conceptions. The question I cannot answer is whether that shift occurred because of natural changes in attitude and opinions among lay Americans, or because it was engineered by the political elite and its courtier press.

     For a great part of the postwar years (see above), national defense took its conceptual shape from the overwhelming concentration of our attention upon the Soviet Union. Similarly, the maintenance of our national security was expressed in information-classification rules, in export law, in the treatment of non-citizens who might choose to work in defense-related industries, and in the structure and operations of our intelligence services.

     The Russian Bear commanded our attention. Its potential and its moves governed both our initiatives and our responses.

     With the fall of the Soviet Union came a considerable cry in the U.S. for substantial demilitarization. We did reduce the size and scope of our armed forces, especially our nuclear deterrent forces. Yet the number of missions upon which those forces – other than our nuclear weapons, of course – were dispatched did not lessen. Indeed, it increased to a point where our enormous blue-water Navy was stretched dangerously thin; it seemed to need to be everywhere at once. In part that was a consequence of the use of Naval forces as humanitarian aid to regions that had experienced natural calamities, but in some measure it was for the deterrence of potential hostilities among lesser powers, and in part a return to the “gunboat diplomacy” that characterized Navy activity in the Caribbean and South America in the Nineteenth Century, where American warships would visit ports in other nations to remind those nations that America held a “big stick,” far bigger than anyone else’s, and that it would be well not to provoke us into swinging it.

     The concept of national defense became fuzzier than it had been in seventy years. National security had begun to slide into the “that was back then” category; our vigilance over our secrets and the enforcement of the laws and regulations ostensibly passed to protect them slackened considerably. Despite the renewal of Russian imperialism and territorial aggression, the rise of several nuclear powers inimical to American interests, and the weakening of protections over Americans’ possessions and interests abroad, that’s the state of affairs today.


     I have an ambivalent relationship with national defense and a great deal of difficulty with “national security.” To take the second matter first, I dispute whether Americans’ security – i.e., our protections against invasion, infringement of our rights, attacks on our material well-being, and general latitude of action both here and abroad – is truly advanced by the laws and regulations promulgated in the name of “national security.” It’s an expensive business whose return on investment is dubious. Nevertheless, our political elite persists in paying lip service to the concept even as high-profile violators of the security rules proliferate and are found in ever higher positions.

     Concerning national defense, I dispute that either our political class or Americans generally would agree on what we’re supposed to be defending ourselves from. The chaos at our southern border is an invasion by another name; it hardly matters that the invaders generally arrive unarmed, for the damage they do to our society doesn’t require weaponry.

     Concerning infringement of our rights, the 88,000 governments of these United States are doing a superlative job of reducing us to totalitarian subjection. We get no protection from them from our Army, Navy, or Air Force. Indeed, I’ve speculated that should our men at arms come to our defense, the mode will be convulsive in the extreme.

     Similarly, the attacks on our prosperity emanate principally from Washington, whose mandarins are unwilling to acknowledge the laws of economic reality. Their recent abuse of the dollar alone has been sufficient to reduce its purchasing power by about 40% — that is, about as much as FDR’s famous dollar redefinition, from $20.67 per Troy ounce to $35.00. The many federal incursions upon freedom of production, commerce, labor, and contract pile atop that degradation of our national unit of account.

     Finally, Americans’ latitude of action has been severely curtailed via law and regulation. The iconic example can be found at the “security screening stations” of any of our airports. Those same stations and procedures have been proposed for water, train, and bus travel. Their application to passenger automobiles, while it seems absurd, is not beyond possibility.

     In light of the above, I would venture to say that there is no American “national defense” as lay Americans would understand it. Whether our armed forces are defensively useful for other persons in other venues I leave to the contemplation of the reader.


     In a recent screed, Fred Reed includes the following:

     I will assign the Five-Sided Wind Tunnel [i.e., the Pentagon] a new mission, namely the defense of the United States. If this novelty encounters resistance, I will require all general officers to report to work in tutus and toe shoes until they see the wisdom of my idea. Of course, these days many would probably like it.

     No doubt Fred wants to see the U.S. defended…but what specific missions would he include in that envelope? Would “the defense of the United States” include the protection of Americans abroad? Would it include the defense of Americans’ properties abroad? How about the defense of the provisions of trade agreements, formally arrived at and agreed upon, between the United States and other nations? Those get violated more often than most of us are aware.

     Would Fred endorse Jimmy Carter’s decision not to declare the 1979 takeover of our embassy in Tehran, openly endorsed by the Khomeini regime, an act of war? What about Congress’s decision not to aid South Vietnam, our ally (and in some ways our creation), when the North attacked in 1975? Then there’s NATO. Would Fred agree that inasmuch as we signed the North Atlantic Charter and have never abrogated it, we are required to react to an attack upon any of the European signatories as an attack upon the U.S.? Or would he unilaterally nullify that treaty?

     All those possibilities pertain to current conceptions of national defense. Indeed, there are others, though they might not be majority viewpoints.

     It becomes ever clearer that any discussion of national defense must begin with a single, sharp question to which a clear answer is mandatory:

What Do You Mean By That?