Letter from Washington — From the December 2016 issue

The New Red Scare

Reviving the art of threat inflation

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Despite some esoteric aspects, the so-called Russian hacks, as promoted by interested parties in politics and industry, are firmly in the tradition of Cold War threat inflation. Admittedly, practitioners had an easier task in Selin’s day. The Cold War was at its height, America was deep in a bloody struggle against the communist foe in Vietnam, and Europe was divided by an Iron Curtain, behind which millions chafed under Soviet occupation.

Half a century later, the Soviet Union is long gone, along with the international communist movement it championed. Given that Russia’s defense budget is roughly one tenth of America’s, and that its military often cannot afford the latest weapons Russian manufacturers offer for export, resurrecting this old enemy might seem to pose a challenge to even the brightest minds in the Pentagon. Yet the Russian menace, we are informed, once again looms large. According to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Russia “has clear ambition to erode the principled international order” and poses “an existential threat to the United States” — a proclamation endorsed by a host of military eminences, including General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his vice-chairman General Paul Selva, and NATO’s former Supreme Allied Commander, General Philip Breedlove.

The Washington Menu, 1984, photomontage

The Latter-Day Messiah at Christmas Island, 1962, photocollage

True, relations with Moscow have been disintegrating since the Bush Administration. Yet Russia achieved formal restoration to threat status only after Putin’s takeover of Crimea in February 2014 (which followed the forcible ejection, with U.S. encouragement, of Ukraine’s pro-Russian government just a few days earlier). Russia’s intervention in Syria, in the fall of 2015, turned the chill into a deep freeze. Still, the recent accusation that Putin has been working to destabilize our democratic system has taken matters to a whole new level, evoking the Red Scare of the 1950s.

At the core of the original Cold War threat was the notion that the Soviets, notwithstanding the loss of 20 million lives and the utter devastation of their country in World War II, somehow maintained a military technologically equal to that of the United States, and far greater in numbers. Portraying the United States as militarily vulnerable might have seemed tricky. There was, after all, the nation’s million-man army, its 900-ship navy, its 15,000-plane air force, and a strategic nuclear arsenal guaranteed, as its commander, General Curtis LeMay, announced in a 1954 briefing, to reduce Russia to a “smoking, radiating ruin in two hours.”

Nevertheless, public belief in the Soviet Union as an existential threat (not that the phrase existed then) was undimmed. The enemy to be held in check appeared awesome. No less than 175 Soviet and satellite divisions were reportedly poised on NATO’s eastern border, vastly outnumbering the puny twenty-five NATO divisions defending Western Europe. U.S. military officials regularly delivered somber warnings that the Soviets were also close to overtaking us in the quality of their military hardware. In 1956, when the Soviet defense minister, Georgy Zhukov, informed a visiting U.S. delegation that its estimate of Soviet military strength was “too high,” the visitors brushed this aside as obvious disinformation. They returned home, as one of them wrote later, convinced that “the Soviets were rapidly reaching the point where they could successfully challenge our technical superiority.”

Zhukov was telling the truth. Soviet military units were to a large extent undermanned, badly trained, and ill equipped — those menacing divisions in East Germany had only enough ammunition for a few days of fighting. An exhaustive 1968 study by the Systems Analysis Office concluded that the two sides in Europe were actually equal in numbers. But since this dose of reality ran counter to the official story, it had no effect on military planning, and certainly none on defense spending.

The “missile gap,” conceived by the Air Force and heavily promoted by John F. Kennedy as he ran for the White House in 1960, stands out as a preeminent example of Cold War threat inflation. Kennedy, briefed by the CIA on President Eisenhower’s orders, knew perfectly well that no such gap existed — except in America’s favor. He campaigned on the lie nonetheless, and once in office, he felt it necessary to spend billions of dollars on a thousand Minuteman ICBMs. (In accord with Selin’s maxim, a large percentage of the missiles were inoperable thanks to a faulty guidance system.)

So it continued. Throughout the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, the Soviet threat reliably prompted infusions of cash into the defense complex, to the gratification of its many functionaries, not least the congressmen and senators who were amply rewarded for their role in lubricating the process. Meanwhile, the “American threat” was performing a similar role on the other side of the Iron Curtain, sustaining the Soviet military’s grip on the commanding heights of a comparatively impoverished domestic economy. Thus, the Soviets eagerly matched the U.S. missile buildup until they, too, had the ability to lay waste to the planet several times over.

Maintaining these huge forces on hair-trigger alert, ready to launch on a few minutes’ notice, was an intricate business, requiring radar arrays, high-powered computers, and elaborate communication networks. Though profitable for participants, these systems had potentially catastrophic consequences. In November 1979, for example, Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national-security adviser, was awoken at three in the morning with the news that the NORAD headquarters in Colorado had detected Russian nuclear missiles streaming toward the United States; they would begin detonating in a matter of minutes. A second call moments later confirmed the report. Brzezinski was on the point of calling Carter, who would have had three minutes to decide whether to precipitate an all-out nuclear war, when a third call announced it had all been a mistake. A NORAD computer had inexplicably started running a software program simulating a Russian attack. Another false alert occurred the following year, this one generated by a single malfunctioning computer chip. The Soviets, meanwhile, developed the Perimeter system, by which alerts of an incoming attack would automatically trigger a counterstrike.

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Andrew Cockburn is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins.

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