Visionaries and Their Visions

May 1, 1990

SAM Goldwyn may have been on to something when he warned against making forecasts, especially about the future. The history of prediction is not impressive. Consider these examples, collected by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky in The Experts Speak:

“Germany has no desire to attack any country in Europe. . . .” David Lloyd George, former British Prime Minister, 1936.

“The modern German theory of victory by blitzkrieg [lightning war] is untried and, in the opinion of many experts, unsound.” Time Magazine, 1939.

“Only hysteria entertains the idea that . . . Japan contemplates war upon us.” John Foster Dulles, US diplomat and later Secretary of State, 1941

“The Hawaiian Islands are over-protected; the entire Japanese fleet and Air Force could not seriously threaten Oahu.” Capt. William T. Pulleston, former Chief of US Naval Intelligence, 1941.

“Iran is an island of stability in the Middle East.” President Jimmy Carter, 1977.

“No matter what happens, the US Navy is not going to be caught napping.” Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, December 4, 1941.

“It is significant that despite claims of air enthusiasts, no battleship has yet been sunk by bombs.” Caption to photo of USS Arizona in program for Army-Navy football game, November 29, 1941. (Eight days later, the Arizona went to the bottom at Pearl Harbor after taking a direct bomb hit.)

The spirit expressed in these happy assessments from the past lives on today in what is shaping up as a new Golden Age of Optimism. Each week’s newspaper columns propose deeper cuts in US armed forces on the grounds that there is insufficient danger to justify their upkeep.

The forecasters have surveyed the future and see nothing that alarms them. Ironically, they project peace and stability mainly on the basis of spectacular changes in the past year–changes that surprised the forecasters and everybody else.

It does not satisfy these visionaries that the Pentagon has cut 60,000 troops and taken $231 billion out of the Five-Year Defense Plan in the last twelve months, or that the most threatening forces of our potential adversaries remain largely intact. As the optimists tell the story, the Pentagon is cast as the Unrelenting Pessimist, refusing to recognize and accept change.

A different picture, however, emerges from the assumptions that Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney says the services have been instructed to use as their planning base for programs through 1995.

The official assumptions–a term of considerable significance in the structuring of forces–are these: that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev will remain in power, and his domestic policies will be at least partly successful; that Soviet foreign policy will be less hostile to the US than it was in the past; that the superpowers will agree on conventional and strategic arms control; that the Soviets will withdraw all their forces from eastern Europe; that the Warsaw Pact will become “a relic of history”; and that eastern Europe will be governed by democratic, non-Communist regimes.

When Mr. Cheney says that this is “a rosy scenario,” he will get no argument here. He gets plenty of argument elsewhere, though, from those who regard the resulting defense program–which will cost four percent of GNP by 1995–as unrealistic and excessive.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara says we could reduce defense spending to three percent of GNP. His theory rests on two optimistic conditions: that the US and the Soviet Union will not “increase or extend their political or military power beyond their borders” and that they will conduct relations between themselves by “rules that preclude the use of force.”

Well, yes, and if we were sure of the same deal with other nations, we could perhaps cut defense to zero percent of GNP. And how should we interpret Mr. McNamara’s first condition, which seems to forfeit the use of military force to protect interests beyond our own borders, no matter what

The Oakland Tribune assures us we can rest easy about Asia, too. It concurs with studies that “see no big security problems arising,” and, besides, “no American President is ever again likely to send US troops to fight another insurgency, or even foreign invasion, in that distant part of the world.”

The fact is, today’s forecasters do not know, any more than yesterday’s forecasters did, what will happen next. This is not to say that optimists have a monopoly on prediction error. When the pessimists are wrong, however, we breathe a sigh of relief. When the optimists are wrong, lights burn late in high places.

It is not hysteria (to borrow Mr. Dulles’s word from 1941) to imagine that new surprises, some of them threatening, might lie ahead. Are we sufficiently confident to bet the nation’s welfare–and perhaps its security–on the premise that history has taken its last wrenching turn?