The Rise of the National Security State, Part 2

(image by Stephen Melkisethlan

by Aaron Albrecht

Continued from Wednesday’s post

The Role of Ideology as Narrative

After World War II, there was a feverish battle within the political and intellectual classes of American society to characterize post-war America’s identity and purpose in the world. These battles were fought through the dissemination of competing narratives. The role ideology played in the passage of the National Security Act of 1947 can be understood through the narrative theory of the policy process. Hogan writes that ideology is not only a coherent, structured system of beliefs but also a political tool used to influence the beliefs of others (ix). Whichever narrative proved to be more influential, its propagators would forge the new American state. These battles took place in Congress, in the administration, and in the public discourse.

The democrats and republicans contended against one another for the supremacy of the narrative. The cultural narrative of national identity propagated by the republicans was one that went back to the founding of the republic. This narrative characterizes the American people as one whose love of freedom led them to escape old world oppression, rebel against unjust taxes and abuses of authority, and ultimately establish a republic with a constitution that decentralized power and guaranteed civilian over military leadership. These self-reliant, virtuous citizens sought political freedom and economic progress at home and were wary of foreign entanglements, any peacetime military establishment, or centralization of decision making in the national government. Those that shared this characterization of the cultural identity opposed any movement of decision-making power or influence into the hands of military leaders and feared that the military establishment exaggerated the Soviet threat to gain influence and access to larger budgets (Hogan, 1998: 8-10; Glennon, 2015: 15).

The ideological narrative propagated by the Truman administration and the democrats was that the United States had found itself new era of total war; the Soviets are fanatics, who are illogical and irrational, who cannot be trusted, and who understand only the language of military power.  They are ruthless and can strike at any time. Such aggression is encouraged by the United States’ lack of military preparedness. Remember Pearl Harbor. History has given the United States the responsibility to defend freedom, democracy, and civilization all around the world. But, upon accepting this responsibility the virtuous people are asked to sacrifice wealth in aid to other nations, accept lower standards of living, pay higher taxes, borrow against the future, and give up freedom for peace and security. Those that did not adhere to this narrative were charged as being un-American, soft on communism, or irresponsible isolationists (10-18).

Pre-war isolationists were discredited and attacked in congress, and congressional reelection changed to become dependent upon one’s ability to secure a portion of the defense budget for the local economy and to espouse the narrative of the ardent defender of international democracy (5). The political battle surrounding the passage of the Nationals Security Act of 1947 was a battle of ideological rhetoric as much as it was a battle waged between individuals, parties, and institutions (7).

Historian Sidney Lens (1971) writes that the Pax Americana, or the United States’ imperial policy, “unfolded from the inner logic of America’s new status.” The cold war was a product of the United States’ imperial policy (349), but this was obscured behind a veil of ideology (341). The Pax Americana is a collection of nations that are dedicated to a free market economic order and to the United States’ military upholding it. Inclusion in the Pax Americana involves agreeing to conduct trade along capitalist lines. In other words, nations like those in Eastern Europe would have had to abandon socialist economics, protectionism, and nascent industrialization to remain a raw-material producing area (351). The institutional mechanisms of coercion within the Pax Americana are the Bretton Woods institutions, the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the National Security Act of 1947.

The National Security State Today

Glennon (2015), in his contemporary history of the national security state, evokes the criticism by Walter Bagehot of the English constitutional government and extends it by analogy to the contemporary governance of our republic. Bagehot’s and Glennon’s criticism distinguishes between the dignified institutions of government and the efficient institutions. The Presidency, the Congress, and the courts, or the dignified institutions, evoke a sentiment of grandeur from the founding, while the network of national security agencies and bureaucracies, or the efficient institutions, undertake the substantive governance. Thus a façade develops where the public believes that governance occurs within the austere, dignified institutions, but power has been transferred into the hands of several hundred government officials from the military, intelligence, diplomatic, and law enforcement agencies and bureaucracies. Glennon argues that the efficient institutions, or the network of national security agencies and bureaucracies, undertake the implementation and creation of foreign, military, and national security policy, over the direction of which the president exercises little control (Glennon, 2015: 7).  While the dignified institutions by design decentralize and divide the power to create and implement national security policy, the efficient institutions centralize that ability and allow for its speedy and efficient implementation.

Today many federal agencies and departments, private companies, geographic constituencies, and millions of employees are involved in the work of national security to the tune of about one-trillion dollars annually (16). These agencies, unlike the dignified institutions, are not subject to hearings, debates, briefs, arguments, and appeals and therefore are able to govern efficiently.

The agencies maintain a particularly reinforcing culture characterized by the military metaphysic, a disposition to support intervention and achieve international security through military and intelligence mechanisms rather than political and diplomatic (18).

The logic of bureaucracy unfolds so that agencies such as these are incentivized to exaggerate threats in an effort to increase operating budgets. Thus by responding to fear, to threats where the precise nature of which is unknown, an arms race is created. There is no incentive to eliminate the ultimate source of the threat; the life of the bureaucracy exists to respond to threats. Glennon argues that the national security apparatus has achieved autonomy in its ability to create, implement, and ensure the duration and continuity of these policies across administrations (Glennon, 2015: 28).

Historian Greg Grandin describes the national security state today when he writes:

“WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning, the nongovernmental National Security Archive, Edward Snowden, and tell-all books by apostate agents like Philip Agee add to the mountain of information. Fact upon top-secret fact, witness upon witness, and document after declassified document – the Pentagon Papers ad infinitum: assassinations, coups, Cambodia, Cointelpro, Iran-Contra, support for jihadists to counter the Soviets; torture; endless surveillance; psychological operations run against US citizens; manipulation of intelligence and the press; Blackwater; Abu Ghraib; war profiteering; the torture memos; drones. And yet today the national security state – its endless war; its all-pervasive system of domestic spying, and the ability of its agents to defend any action no matter how illegal or immoral, from indefinite detention and targeted assassinations of individuals not charged with any crime to unregulated drone warfare and torture – is stronger than ever.” (Grandin, 2015: 136).

The implications of these assertions are troublesome and can lead to cynicism. But it would be immoral, irrational, and irresponsible to allow such cynicism to draw one toward apathy or inaction. The transition to the national security state occurred out from under the watchful eye of the citizenry. Because the citizenry was inattentive and inactive in pressuring congress members, congressional governance ceded to the national security apparatus. Security and liberty are indivisible; the American people are right to be extended both physical security and security of rights.

 Works Cited

Glennon, Michael. National Security and Double Government. 2015. Oxford University Press. New York, New York.

Grandin, Greg. Kissinger’s Shadow. 2015. Henry Holt and Company. New York, New York.

Hogan, Michael J. A Cross of Iron: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of the National Security State 1945-1954. 1998. Cambridge University Press.

Lens, Sidney. The Forging of American Empire: A History of U.S. Imperialism. 1971. Pluto Press. Sterling, VA.





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