The Slander That Launched Don Rumsfeld's Career

An anecdote from James Carroll's magnificent new book, House of War (which I'll be reviewing here soon) provides a brief but penetrating glimpse at the gutter politics and moral nullity that have marked the entire career of the Pentagon warlord -- and the rest of his cohorts in the Bush gang.

In 1963, John F. Kennedy nominated Paul H. Nitze as Secretary of the Navy. This was actually a demotion for Nitze, who, as Carroll notes, had been at the very hear
t of American power for almost 20 years by then. He was in fact one of the godfathers of the Cold War, a Wall Street blue-blood turned high-level bureaucrat who served several presidents but was always driven by the same vision: projecting American dominance to the four corners of the earth, using an ever-expanding nuclear arsenal as the tip of the spear. For Nitze, thoroughly marinated in the "paranoid school" of U.S. political thought, no Pentagon budget was ever too big, no policy was ever too aggressive (including first-strike nuclear attacks), no restriction on American liberty was ever sufficient to stave off the demonic, all-powerful "evil empire" of the Soviet Union, which threatened, at every moment, to destroy America and its "way of life."

Nitze was the author of NSC-68, the document that more than any other engineered the militarization of American society and constituted the re-founding of the country as a "National Security State," controlled by the military-industrial complex and driven by a nightmare vision of exaggerated threats, craven fear, secrecy and deception, bellicosity and brinkmanship. This vision has waxed and waned in intensity at various times over the years, but it has never been displaced as the central dynamic of American power. The demonic, all-powerful enemy has now morphed from the Soviet Union to Islamic extremism, but the paranoid rhetoric and "Pentagon uber alles" philosophy of the Cold War has been seamlessly transferred whole cloth to the supposedly transformed "post-9/11 age."

And in the Bush administration, this nightmare Nitzean philosophy has reached its apotheosis in the war-making, liberty-gutting dictatorship of the Commander-in-Ch
ief that George W. Bush proclaims more openly every day. Thus Nitze is one of the Founding Fathers of the new Bushist State, and Rumsfeld is one of his most dutiful sons.

All the more ironic then, that Rumsfeld began his career with a vicious smear of Nitze during his confirmation hearings for the Navy nomination. Rumsfeld was then a roo
kie Congressman from Illinois looking to make a name for himself. Nitze, who had been one of Kennedy's top advisors, had fallen out of favor with the young president. During two flashpoints that brought the world to the very brink of nuclear war -- in Berlin and Cuba -- Nitze had urged Kennedy to take military action, including nuclear first strikes if necessary. He derided the "morality questions" involved in taking the world to nuclear war, and accused Robert Kennedy (and indirectly the president) of "appeasement" for seeking peaceful solutions. For some reason, Nitze thought all this would win him a much longed-for nomination as Deputy Secretary of Defense -- the same position held much later by Paul Wolfowitz. But Kennedy had other ideas. Nitze was too powerful, too well-connected to jettison outright -- as Carroll's book makes clear, by this time the presidency had become in large part a prisoner of the Pentagon -- so he was palmed off with the Navy job.

And here he came into the crosshairs of young Don Rumsfeld. Any confirmation hearing is a good opportunity for the political opposition to score points off the sitting admi
nistration, but what could a hard-right, rampant Cold Warrior like Rumsfeld find to say against one of the chief architects of America's bristling, ever-expanding nuclear arsenal and its policies of aggressive "rollback" that even then beginning to ensnare the United States in the bloody quagmire of Vietnam? Here was a man after Rumsfeld's own cold heart. But the budding Bushist knew just what to do in such a situation: you lie. You come up with the most ludicrous, unsupported, impossible lie that you can think of -- then you launch it in the most public way possible. Yes, it's the old "Big Lie" gambit, consciously perfected by Josef Goebbels in Nazi Germany and now the chief mode of political discourse used by the Bush Administration. And although George W. himself was just a prep school cheerleader at the time, Rumsfeld was already honing the skills he would need to serve the master to come.

-- who as a House member was not on the Senate confirmation panel and thus had to find a really juicy charge to horn in on the action -- accused Nitze of all people of being a pinko wimp who supported nuclear disarmament in the face of the implacable Soviet foe. What was the basis of this outrageous charge, which made about as much sense as calling Gandhi a war profiteer? It seems that years before, Nitze had attended a meeting of the National Council of Churches. At this conference, some people had spoken in favor of disarmament; others opposed it. In fact, the keynote speaker at the event was John Foster Dulles, then Secretary of State and one of the most aggressive and military-minded figures ever to hold power at the State Department (until the arrival of Condi Rice). It was, in other words, a very Establishment affair, where the great and good gather to pontificate and eat prime rib; "hardly a gathering of pinkos," Carroll notes. Nitze himself had a copious public record of speaking out against disarmament.

But none of these facts stopped Rumsfeld from publicly slandering Nitze during the course of the hearings as a disarmer, a betrayer of national security, the kind of weakling who would cut and run in the face of the enemy. For Rumsfeld, the merest, fleeting association with any organization that so much as entertained the notion of pursuing peace over domination was enough to taint a nominee. Other Republicans followed the firebrand stripling's Big Lie and pounded Nitze -- one of the greatest champions of war, even genocidal nuclear war, in American history -- as a peacenik unworthy to head the Navy. Nitze survived the assault and won the confirmation vote, barely; but as Carroll writes, "the wound of the insult would never heal." As for Rumsfeld, his particular brand of ideological nastiness was noted -- and approved -- by powerful factions in the Republican Party, and when Richard Nixon brought the party back to power five years later, he found room for the hawkish hatchet man in the White House. Rumsfeld was a made man; he would remain entrenched in the bowels of the military-industrial, and often at the center of government, from that time until today.

And every step of the way, his career has been marked by mendacity, duplicity, smirking chatter and deadly ideological blindness -- for example, in the White House, he was a champion of the infamous "Team B" group that insisted that all of the CIA's intelligence about the Soviet Union's declining economy, its military weakness and its genuine desire to reach a new, peaceful accommodation to the West while reforming its own system was all false; Rumsfeld and his cohorts insisted -- on the basis of false evidence, manipulated evidence and no evidence at all -- that the "evil empire" was developing a whole range of new super-weapons that would be able to destroy the United States at a moment's notice. The fact that the CIA, the NSA, the DIA and the whole phalanx of America's intelligence services couldn't find any evidence for these weapons of mass destruction only proved how devious the Russians were in cloaking them. This group of "outside advisers" was formed by then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush; when he and goofy front-man Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, Rumsfeld and the B-teamers were able to "stovepipe" their twisted non-intelligence directly to the White House, which used it to justify gargantuan increases in military budgets and missile systems.

The Big Lie -- first deployed against his ideological soul-mate, Paul Nitze -- has served Rumsfeld well throughout his long career. And now he may cap this long and dirty record with the greatest irony of all: making Nitze's dream come true by launching nuclear weapons in an unprovoked first strike against a demonized Enemy -- Iran.

*This piece has been edited for clarity since its original posting.*