JAMES WILSON: The bomb — and the lessons we refuse to learn from it

EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed in the following editorial do not necessarily reflect the views of Scope News or Informed Media Group.

When I was a boy and war in Vietnam was tearing our nation apart – the culture of rage then was pretty much what it is now – my mother had a standard answer to any questions I raised. “But Jim we have to do as the government says; they have so much more information than we have and we must trust them.” Then I saw the photograph of a six-year-old Vietnamese girl with one arm burnt off to the elbow.

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I saw the photo twice, in a leftwing propaganda newspaper and a US government source. In one it was her left arm burnt and blame ascribed to American air attacks; in the other it was her right arm and the Vietcong held accountable for the atrocity. To this day I do not know which photo was accurate – if either – but I did learn I could not trust my government any more than communist propagandists. The latter have always made it a matter of doctrine lying is morally necessary in pursuit of their agenda, while my own government had been compelled to admit they “managed the news” after being caught out in multiple lies and cover-ups during that time.


It got worse when I read The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam’s landmark study of the policy decisions and process that governed our conduct of war in Vietnam. In his exhaustively documented book, Halberstam reveals the reality we never intended to win the war – victory would have risked Chinese and Russian intervention; that might have led to a nuclear exchange – we simply moved heaven and earth to avoid losing it. That led to three deeply depressing revelations: Americans sent to fight for their country were nothing but cannon fodder to further a political objective, the war itself was one gigantic experiment in behavior modification, and our government was committed to whatever lies were needed to hide the real objectives. Our leaders considered Cold War politics and procedures viz Vietnam such an emergency – one ordinary citizens were incapable of understanding – as to justify hiding what our best and brightest did.

This year I read Fred Kaplan’s equally important work, The Bomb. Like Halberstam, he demonstrates what we all should know – the government has information the general public lacks, much of it completely irrelevant, and therefore confusing to officials. It also demonstrates the bureaucrats and elected officials are not smarter – and certainly not more spiritually or morally enlightened – than the rest of us. Yet they justify dishonesty in the same “emergency” terms spanning seventy-five years.

The Bomb is a thoroughgoing study of the development of nuclear weapons policy – mostly American – but with enough material about our allies and antagonists to illustrate we are pretty much just like everybody else in what we do, and why we do it. The bottom line in The Bomb – which spans before, during, and after the Vietnam War – is that policy was made and executed in all parts of the world in the same imbecilic terms that served us so disastrously in Southeast Asia from 1963 through 1975.

Our published policy over the decades has been known as MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction. The bottom line is Russia and the United States – and others now – have more than enough nuclear weapons to destroy nuclear adversaries – even following a first strike – making a nuclear first strike theoretically unthinkable. Generals on both sides supported this policy – including some who went overboard – spending careers calling for enough weapons to destroy enemies several times over, thus allowing for possible misses on military targets and the threat of terror bombing cities. Yet political (and some military) leaders were not content to make the thought of an aggressive strike unthinkable; Kaplan reveals how both sides walked to the brink of war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and there is more sinister posturing on both sides.

During the Obama Administration our establishment gamed an “escalate to de-escalate” strategy in response to a similar Russian-initiated strategy. The idea was to see how much violent pressure it would take – short of a full-scale nuclear launch – to compel the other side to behave as our side desired, a Vietnam repeat. Obama was neither the first nor the last to game these strategies; likewise Putin. The trouble with games is they are only games; as Dwight Eisenhower famously said, no battle plan ever survives contact with the battle field.

Mad as MAD policy may be, it possesses the virtue of letting everyone know where they stand in terms of simple rules of engagement. It depends on predictable balance of terror, which is all we have left once the nuclear genie is released from the bottle. I thank God America released it before Germany, Japan, or the Soviet Union got there, because no party to World War II would have shown the restraint we demonstrated. It would be a different and more hostile world had we not gotten there first, but MAD remains what we have left in the aftermath.

The trouble with incrementalism – manipulation – in the sense employed in Vietnam and much of the Cold War is it imagines there is somewhere (for both sides) to stop before atomic annihilation. In a social context it is like imagining we can play with addictive substances and stop before we are hooked. In spiritual terms it is imagining we can defy God and abuse others without going “too far.” Not happening in this life.

Diplomacy is the art of making an adversary want what you promise and fear what you threaten. War is what happens when diplomacy fails; in Vietnam we fought for diplomacy and the Vietnamese fought for victory. Our best and brightest were the best educated fools in history. We’ve learned little if Kaplan is correct.

I recommend The Bomb, followed by some prayer and repentance.

James A. Wilson is the author of Living As Ambassadors of Relationships, The Holy Spirit and the End Times, Kingdom in Pursuit, and his first novel, Generation – available at Barnes and Nobles, Amazon, or at praynorthstate@gmail.com