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'House of War' Questions U.S. Reliance on Pentagon


The Cold War may be long over, but James Carroll says the forces it unleashed are not. Carroll is an author who's written a very personal history. The history is of the Pentagon, and it's personal because his father was an Air Force general during some of the nuclear confrontations with the Soviet Union.

Carroll sat down with us for the latest of the conversations we call the Long View, when we listen to people of long experience. In a book called House Of War, James Carroll tracks more than six decades of life at the Pentagon and outside it, including his memories of the 1950s and '60s.

Mr. JAMES CARROLL (Author, House Of War): There was a palpable fear in this country of nuclear war. People of my generation often - I'm sure you've heard us all refer to the duck and cover drills; being told to get under our desks and have a kind of dress rehearsal for the coming war. Don't look at the blinding flash, they told us. I always looked and was always full of remorse and kind of panic when I did look.

My father was, I later understood, full of nuclear dread, too. He was in the Pentagon at the time when a generation of men were really quite seriously preparing for World War III.

INSKEEP: And it was in this period, in which you write, that your father came to you with some advice.

Mr. CARROLL: The summer of '61, that was a critical point of conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States over Berlin. Kennedy and Khrushchev had a brutal confrontation in Vienna. Khrushchev threatened war quite explicitly. And Kennedy came back from that meeting quite shaken. And through that summer there were serious preparations for war. Kennedy gave a speech in July in which he told Americans it was time to build bomb shelters. This was serious.

It was around that time that my father - one of my privileges, as a boy, was to pick up my father in the car late at night at the Pentagon. Those were some of my most intimate moments with him, driving home back to Bolling Air Base from the Pentagon. And one night, I was sitting in the car waiting for him to come out. It was fairly late and he did come out. And he effectively commissioned me to take his place with the family.

He said, one of these nights I may not come home. And I'm going to depend on you to take my place with Mom and the boys. And I'm going to want you to get in the car. And I'm going to want you to drive away from Washington.

It was very clear to me that he was warning me about a coming nuclear attack. I felt the cold fear pouring off my father. But I also felt the trust and the intimate bond with him. He was showing me his fear. It was an irrational thing he was commissioning me to do. The same irrationality that was prompting John Kennedy, at the time, to invite us to build bomb shelters. I mean, it's an insane idea.

INSKEEP: Why was it irrational for him to tell you to drive away from Washington?

Mr. CARROLL: It was irrational to tell me to drive away from Washington, because if it came to the nuclear exchange, there wasn't going to be any place on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States that wasn't going to be either directly hit or devastated by the consequences of direct hits. So there was a nuclear nightmare in my father's mind. There was no escaping it.

He wasn't asking me rationally to do something. He was giving me a clear sense of the panic he felt, the worry he felt. My father said to me years later, candidly, having spent his life as an American military officer, he saw the whole enterprise as finally obsolete. Because, as he put it, if human beings don't find a new way to resolve their conflicts with each other, we won't survive this century, he told me.

While that was 20 years before the 20th century ended - so he as wrong about that, but I'm convinced it's true of this century. The irony is that my father, a general, a realist, a hawk, a man in no way a peacenik, saw through the myth of war.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask you. You're giving a perspective here on the Cold War, a unique perspective on the Cold War, and telling us of a history of just how close we came to destruction in that time. We've been told a million times since then, though, the Cold War is over...


INSKEEP: There're different circumstances today, different enemies...


INSKEEP: ...different threats. What of that history is still directly relevant today?

Mr. CARROLL: Well, still at the center of the American dilemma is the nuclear weapon. The reason 9/11 was so traumatizing for us, I believe, is that the vision we all had of the World Trade Center collapsing in a, you know, horrible cloud, is that it was for us, it was effectively the mushroom cloud that we had been dreading for a generation. We even designated the place Ground Zero. The only real ground zero exists in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now America has one, too.

Nuclear dread is an inch below the surface of the entire military project that has unfolded since 9/11. We went to war in Iraq because we were afraid that Saddam Hussein could get a nuclear weapon. We're on the threshold of an escalation of conflict with Iran because we're dreading the possibility that Iran could get a nuclear weapon.

Obviously, the prospect of nuclear proliferation is a grave problem. The tragedy is that the American policies are making that problem worse not better. And the...

INSKEEP: Are you saying - forgive me. Are you saying that if Iran pursues a nuclear weapon, it's the United States' fault?

Mr. CARROLL: We have given Iran an absolutely compelling reason exactly to pursue a nuclear weapon. The only way they can really expect to hold off the American agenda of regime change in Iran is if they are able to frighten us off with the possibility of nuclear weapons. It's the reason we've treated North Korea so respectfully, because we're compelled to assume that North Korea has some kind of nuclear capability.

So my short point is we're more vulnerable not less vulnerable. And that's the lesson of this whole long 60-year history of the Pentagon.

INSKEEP: When you drive past the Pentagon now, as must occasionally happen, what goes through your mind?

Mr. CARROLL: Well, the thing that really stunned on me on 9/11 was how grievously, I felt, the wound that the Pentagon took that day. I understand the dignity and nobility of the people who've worked there. I think that the Pentagon enshrines some of the things that Americans can be proudest of. But there's also a terrible momentum that is generated in the Pentagon, what Eisenhower called the Military Industrial Complex.

The Pentagon is a fearsome place now. It seems an awful thing to say. But I understand why it found itself a world target on September 11, 2001. America is vastly over dependent on its war machine. The Pentagon was born the same week that Los Alamos was commissioned formally. And in the same week, America's first air bombardments of German cities began.

War from the air, nuclear war, the great bureaucracy, the house of war, as I call it, together, form this terrible momentum that pushes America in places that it doesn't belong.

INSKEEP: That's the Long View from James Carroll, author of House of War. You can find earlier interviews in this series - Kurt Vonnegut, Mike Wallace, PD James, and more - just go to npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.