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Book Reviews

1999: Victory Without War, by Richard Nixon. Pocket Books, Toronto, 1988, 336 pp.

Richard Nixon, “American’s elder statesman of foreign relations”, remains representative of his country’s post-1945 political leadership and ideology. As he puts it in this volume, his is a “pragmatic” position, holding a hard middle ground between the “super hawks” and “super doves” of the Republic’s “leadership class”. He is not an apocalyptic neo-conservative. He criticizes Reagan’s “belligerent rhetoric”, rejects the prospect of an anti-Soviet East Europe, recognizes the economic causation of Third World societies’ “turn to communism” and emphasizes the need for their prosperity, and prefers the defence of Latin America and other “American interests” by their own client militaries rather than by the invasion of US troops.

But the subtitle of his book — “Victory Without War” — does not mean that he or other US “pragmatists” are any less fond of military solutions than in the heyday of the Vietnam War, which Nixon judges “a tragedy — not that we were there, but that we lost” (p. 20).

As others, Nixon believes that Gorbachev’s concessions on nuclear armaments and testing, troop and tank division cutbacks in Europe, military pullout of Afghanistan and encouragement of democratic reforms in the Eastern bloc are but so many manoeuvres of the Russian masterplan to defeat the US and achieve “world domination”. “Under Gorbachev,” he says, “the Soviet Union’s foreign policy has been more skillful and subtle than ever before. But is has been more agressive, not less” (p. 26). He repeatedly appeals to the myth of a “massive Soviet superiority in conventional forces and arms” (eg. pp. 72, 200). He declares without qualification that Cuba and Nicaragua were “far better off” under Batista and Somoza than under their current “brutal communist regimes” (p. 122 and p. 134). He acknowledges and strongly endorses US threats of nuclear attack against the USSR over Iran in 1945, in Korea in 1953, against the USSR in the Suez crisis of 1956, against the USSR again in the Berlin crisis in 1959, and against the USSR in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 (pp. 71-77). He reassures us, however, that: “The United States is an avowedly and manifestly defensive power” (p. 46). And “It has never been an offensive power” (p. 71). Indeed, he laments that the US has lost its global monopoly of nuclear weapons to “deter Soviet aggression”. But insisting, in italics, that equality is the secret to future arms treaties (p. 87), he endorses SDI whether or not it violates the ABM Treaty of 1972 (p. 85), insists on billions more US arms expenditures “to restore previous superiority in warfare capability” (eg. p. 218), and calls for a six-fold increase of Japanese military spending (p. 230) and an unlimited increase of NATO military spending (pp. 204-220) to ensure that the West “wins the Cold War”. He also recommends an increase in US aid to the Contra invasions of Nicaragua (pp. 132-7), and to Savimbi’s South African-supported UNITA forces seeking to overthrow the government of strategic mineral-rich Angola (p. 142). He also fully approves of the US military invasions of Lebanon in 1957, the Dominican Republic in 1965, and Grenada in 1983 (pp. 106- 7). Paradoxically, his own administration’s secret bombing of Cambodia in 1969 and overthrow of the elected Allende government in Chile in 1973, are not mentioned. This may be because Nixon supports “covert actions” that s-tay covert (p. 109). Nixon also advises increasing military aid to the government of El Salvador, which has killed over 60,000 of its citizens since 1979. Here and elsewhere Nixon advises against any human rights tests of governments which the US arms and aids (pp. 135-7). He also rejects any UN intervention in conflicts involving the exercise of US power (p. 22).

For those interested in Nixon’s position on arms control today, he unequivocally repudiates a commitment to “no first use” of nuclear weapons (p. 213) and scorns the “zero-zero” option for nuclear arms (p. 191). He recommends raising the nuclear threshold (p. 212), advises “lengthening the nuclear fuse” (p. 212), opposes START (p. 94) and overall counsels that, “Those who call for the elimination of nuclear weapons are living in a dream world” (p. 68). “You cannot win more at the conference table,” he declares as “axiomatic”, “than you can win on the battlefield” (p. 177). Any move towards “disarmament”, he declares, “would be disastrous” for America (p. 314). The US “must protect its interests.” Primary among these are the “vast and essentially natural and human resources” of the Third World (pp. 142, 265-66)-“oil”, “strategic minerals”, “cheap labour”, “raw materials” — which are the “prizes” of the great US-Soviet “competition” (pp. 120-21). (Canada, by the way, ranks at the top of US “vital interests”, pp. 114-5.) The world-historic competition between the US and the USSR is not for the “naive” or “the weak of will”, and Nixon counsels the violation of international law if “national liberation movements” get in the way of what is in the interest of the US (p. 129). However, he emphasizes that he only seeks “a century of peace” (p. 13) and a “victory for the right of all people to be free from political repression” (p. 24). “Only by example and never by force,” he reiterates in conclusion, “will our values be extended to others” (p. 314).

Nixon’s general argument here is warmly endorsed in reviews by the New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times. His “political and moral vision” expresses, it seems, a conventional world-view of America’s official ideology. As Nixon puts it, the world is the site of “a titanic struggle between two clashing conceptions of man and his place in the world. The American-Soviet contest is a struggle between the opposite poles of human experience — between those represented by the sword and by the spirit, by fear and by hope. The Soviet’s system is ruled by the sword; ours is ruled by spirit. Their influence is spread through conquest; ours is spread by example. We know freedom, liberty, hope and self-fulfillment; they know tyranny, butchery, starvation, war, and repression” (p. 316). Even the great problems of environmental depredation, which Nixon mentions once in passing, are located in the rising “major ecological crisis in Eastern Europe” (p. 153). Nothing that the US does can be really wrong, except in the failure of “will” or “far-sightedness”, and nothing the Soviet Union does can be really right, except in the eyes of “the misinformed” or otherwise misled. The nature of the US-Soviet “competition” (the axial concept of this book) is ultimately a zero-sum game. Whatever is a gain for the Soviet Union (eg. international recognition for peace initiatives or increased trade with the West) is necessarily a loss for the US, unless US leaders use it as a “lever” to get more back in return (e.g. an arms advantage or a “linkage” concession, pp. 178, 218). On the other hand, whatever is a loss for the Soviet Union is necessarily a gain for the US, and therefore “freedom” — however onlookers may misunderstand appearances (eg. stalled or violated arms-reduction agreements). The only limit here is that excessive losses by the Soviet Union, e.g. an East Europe turned hostile, would lead to a Soviet union striking back in a way that would incur heavy losses of US supporters (p. 150). Nixon’s zero-sum game has more than one chapter, unlike the apocalyptic anti-Sovietism of the “super-hawks”. At the same time, this zero-sum game is a somewhat loaded game. Nixon confides in passing that the US has immeasurably greater power in the world that its adversary, the USSR: “We have learned to project power around the world better than any nation in history” (p. 125), whereas the Soviets “cannot project their power over such great distances” (p. 135). It is a zero-sum game that the US is destined to win, if it but “stays the course”.

Nixon’s representative view has one fatal flaw. Its concept of the Soviet Enemy seeking “world domination” appears to be a projection of what his own policies seek to achieve for the United States.

— John McMurtry

Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, by Modris Ecksteins. Lester & Orpen Dennys, Toronto, 1989, 396 pp.

In this astonishing work the author attempts no less than an analysis of the intellectual, emotional and (dare we say?) aesthetic dynamics of World Wars I and II. His thesis: that there was an atmosphere of rebellion or revolution (not communism!) in the air of pre-WWI Europe, exemplified in such phenomena as the ballets of Diaghilev, Stravinsky, and Nijinsky, and art and literature of the likes of Picasso, Cocteau and Joyce.

In no state was the social ferment as great as in Germany. Ecksteins contends that the belated self-recognition of a German state, the lack of “objective definition” led to “the idea of Germany and Germanness (becoming) a question of imagination, myth and inwardness — in short of fantasy.” This he links to the Lutheran tradition in which “religion was a matter of faith rather than good ideas or doctrine.” Ecksteins believes that the inventors, scientists and architects of Germany were pre-eminent in bringing us into our “post-industrial world” but that in an “experiential sense” also, Germany, more than any other developed Western nation, manifested the “psychic-disorientation that rapid and wholesale environmental change may produce.”

Among the effects of such societal dynamics on a Germany drifting towards war, Ecksteins notes that around 1870 British steel production was four times that of Germany, yet by 1914 German steel production equalled the combined production of Britain, Prance and Russia. There were comparable changes across the board, including the use of energy and the production of electricity and chemicals. In “less than one prolonged lifetime, Germany … moved from a geographic assemblage … to become the most formidable industrial … (and) …military power in Europe.”

All of this was accompanied by a great population increase, booming living standards, sweeping educational reforms — the latter not merely in technical areas. Somehow, out of this, grew a new German culture in which technique, efficiency and innovation were seen as spiritually liberating, encouraging to the development of an intense “inner freedom.” With this grew national ambition to lead, dominate, and also to disparage as second rate many of the older cultures of Europe — notably the French and the British.

It all came from there, as Ecksteins sees it. The national pride and bombast, the will to excel which became the urge to conquest, the notion of a future different in some fundamental, revolutionary way to all its pasts. Always change. A desire to assert the new against the old in technology, culture and the spirit alike. World War I, when it came, was fought by men who, though their moods shifted over the four appalling years, exemplified different attitudes in their amazing collective fortitude. The Germans held to their national ideals, their notions — by now seemingly almost inbred — of superiority, and of will to create a new society. The British and French generally behaved according to their concepts of solid bourgeois societies in which men did their duty with a certain decorum in the face of horror. It changed gradually towards acts of barbarity — gas initiated by the Germans, tanks by the British. But, again, gas could be viewed as a sort of inevitable outcome of the German drive towards societal revolution, rebellion — never to be held to the forms of the past even in matters of warfare.

After WWI, the main argument goes, Germany still somehow held to a vision of the future, an aesthetically-propelled concept of a new society which had been thwarted by the war. Ideas like racial purification and the amazing sound and light extravaganzas of the Nazi rallies are seen as outcomes of a dark and mindless art. Hitler himself, though he failed as an artist, is portrayed as a consummate designer and impresario of kitsch on the huge stage of German national life.

This book is a tumultuous work in the dictionary sense of that word, in that it produces a “conflict of emotions in the mind.” And to evaluate it fully will require several re-readings and long reflection. The book attempts to drive the continuous shaft of an idea — that of a concentrated furious aesthetic of change, a perverse, and essentially a wicked and barbarous idealism — through all the events from the beginning of the 20th century including the two World Wars. Does it succeed? Well, it certainly makes for absorbing reading, aided by its splendid style. And if it is “right”, then it may throw powerful gleams on the origins of WWI — which have always been a problem of collective irrationalities to most people. As for WWII, it can help to explain its beginning as a continuation of the irrational aesthetic impulses not thoroughly extinguished by the slaughter of a generation earlier. If it is “right” then all of us should tremble at the implications, because what Ecksteins’ thesis says is that one of the most terrible of wars may have been fought not fundamentally over territory, wealth, fear or envy, or political questions, race or religion (as these latter three are usually understood), but as a result of twisted aesthetic notions which so captivated and inflamed a gifted people that they could lead to the loss of millions of Germans and cause the deaths of scores of millions more.

A feature of this work is the outstanding use by the author of the vast untapped source of information in the personal letters of ordinary soldiers, especially of WW1. The power and eloquence of these letters gives a stunning expositional freshness to the narrative which grabs the reader’s attention in a way not usually experienced in works of historical analysis.

Modris Ecksteins is a Professor of History at the Scarborough Campus of the University of Toronto.

— Alan H. Weatherley


Michalos, A. C. (1989). “Militarism and the Quality of Life” Canadian Papers in Peace Studies, No. 1. Science for Peace, Samuel Stevens, Toronto, 55 pp.

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