Ever since it became clear that the U.S. invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq were turning into disasters, a common refrain has been to end America’s “forever wars.” Politicians of all political stripes, commentators in the mainstream press, and various conservative and libertarian think tanks and educational foundations have embraced the refrain, thinking that if only America can bring an end to its “forever wars,” everything will be fine.
But these people are mistaken. Ending America’s forever wars is akin to reducing the size of a cancerous tumor. In order to cure the longstanding ailment that afflicts the American body politic, it is necessary to eradicate, not reduce, the entire cancerous tumor that is taking our country down from within.
As a new book entitled The Last Honest Man by James Risen demonstrates, U.S. Senator Frank Church gradually came to this realization. Church was a fierce opponent of the war in Vietnam. Not surprisingly, rightwing proponents of the war called him every name in the book — traitor, Russia-lover, and commie sympathizer. None of that dissuaded Church from maintaining that America’s forever war in Vietnam, which ultimately sacrificed the lives of more than 58,000 American men, was an absolute disaster and needed to be brought to an end.
The real issue in foreign policy
But Church realized that simply extracting the United States from the Vietnam War was not enough. He came to the realization that the real problem was not America’s forever wars but rather the fact that the United States had become a national-security state. As long as America remained a national-security state, Church maintained, it would continue to be besieged by an endless series of forever wars.
This is what all too many opponents of America’s foreign wars still do not understand. They want to end them but want to keep America’s national-security state governmental apparatus. They are convinced that the Pentagon, the vast military-industrial complex, the CIA, and the NSA are absolutely essential to the freedom, security, and well-being of the American people. They still don’t see that as long as America remains a national-security state, our country will be besieged by perpetual war in the ostensible quest for permanent peace.
Consider the Vietnam War. Antiwar proponents were ultimately successful in bringing an end to U.S. involvement in that war. Yet, the Cold War and its anticommunist crusade continued, along with ever-growing taxpayer-funded largesse being heaped on the national-security establishment to keep America safe from the Reds. The forever war against communism was the national-security establishment’s biggest racket, one that it was determined to revive after the racket ostensibly came to an end in 1989.
Once the Cold War ended, the national-security state didn’t skip a beat. After misleading Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein into thinking that U.S. officials were indifferent to his dispute with Kuwait, U.S. officials went into overdrive to bring us the Persian Gulf War, which turned into a forever war to secure Saddam’s ouster, with sanctions targeting the Iraqi people with death and impoverishment. That forever war lasted for more than 10 years.
Once the massive death and destruction in Iraq and other acts of U.S. interventionism in the Middle East gave rise to the inevitable and predictable terrorist retaliation, the national-security establishment was off to the races once again, this time with another forever war — the “war on terrorism” — which was also termed the “war on evil” and “the war on Islam.” Given the large number of terrorists, evil people, and Muslims in the world, the hope was that this forever war would prove to be more lucrative than the old Cold War, anticommunist racket.
Then came the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. The rage and hatred arising from the massive death and destruction in those two countries ensured an endless supply of terrorists, which meant that the forever “war on terrorism” would very likely last even longer than the forever war against the communists.
The national-security state doesn’t give up
But knowing that there was always a possibility that the war on terrorism could fizzle out, especially if the United States was thrown out of Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. national-security officials began planning for a reinvigoration of their old Cold War racket against Russia. That’s what expanding NATO eastward toward Russia’s borders was all about. Once NATO threatened to absorb Ukraine, the national-security establishment had its old Cold War, anti-Russia racket back again.
Meanwhile, just to ensure their bets, national-security state officials have done everything they could to gin up another forever Cold War with China, beginning with a vicious trade war and a big expansion of provocative U.S. military activity near China.
Let’s not forget North Korea. Pentagon and CIA officials could easily reignite tensions in that part of the world as yet another part of their forever-war scheme.
Can you see why Frank Church maintained that as long as America remains a national-security state, the country will continue to be besieged by forever wars? Limiting one’s self to opposing each war as it pops up is like playing whack-a-mole. As soon as you hit one mole, another one immediately pops up.
As detailed in Risen’s excellent book, Frank Church displayed phenomenal courage in taking on the national-security establishment, especially the CIA. It was the Church Committee that brought to light some of the dark-side activities in which the CIA had been engaged since its inception in 1947. As you can imagine, Church was accused of aiding the enemy and threatening “national security” with such disclosures.
America’s original governmental structure
Keep in mind that America was founded as a limited-government republic, a type of governmental structure in which the government’s powers are limited and tightly constrained. It came with a relatively small, basic military force. No Pentagon, no vast military-industrial complex, no CIA, no NSA, and no empire of foreign military bases. Government operations were, by and large, transparent. There was no obsession with national-security secrecy.
Combined with our limited-government republic was a foreign policy of noninterventionism. That founding policy was expressed in John Quincy Adams’s Fourth of July speech to Congress in 1821, entitled “In Search of Monsters to Destroy.” Adams pointed out that lots of bad things happen in the world but that America’s policy was to not send U.S. troops abroad to fix them.
Instead, America had a system of open immigration, which essentially said to the world, “If you are suffering from tyranny, oppression, war, or famine, or if you just want to improve your life, know that there is one place in the world where you can come that will not forcibly return you to your country.”
Those three founding principles — a limited-government republic, noninterventionism, and open borders — were major factors in the tremendous increase in the standard of living of the American people, especially in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century.
A national-security state is a completely different type of governmental system. It is a totalitarian-like system that has been grafted onto our founding democratic system. It comes with omnipotent, not limited, powers, most of which emanate from what can be called the “dark side.” These include state-sponsored assassinations, torture, indefinite detention, kidnapping, coups, and alliances with dictatorial regimes.
By the time that America became a national-security state, the country had embraced not only a foreign policy of interventionism but also a domestic policy of government-controlled immigration. All three new policies led directly to America’s endless series of forever wars, all in the name of “freedom” and keeping us “safe.”
If the Constitution had proposed a national-security state form of governmental structure, a foreign policy of interventionism, and a policy of immigration controls, there is no reasonable possibility whatsoever that the American people would have accepted it. That would have meant that the United States would have continued operating under the Articles of Confederation, a third type of governmental structure in which the federal government’s powers were so few, limited, and weak that it didn’t even have the power to tax. That’s the way our American ancestors wanted it.
The sordid history of the national-security state
Among the dark-side activities that the Church Committee disclosed to the American people in 1975 and 1976 was the CIA’s infamous top-secret program MKULTRA. Headed by a man named Sydney Gottlieb, the program would have fit perfectly within Nazi Germany. It involved conducting drug experiments on unsuspecting Americans, which brought death and mental damage to many of the victims.
How many people were victimized by this Nazi-like program? We don’t know because when word leaked out about MKULTRA, CIA officials destroyed their MKULTRA records to prevent Congress and the American people from ever learning the full extent of the program.
Needless to say, no one, including Gottlieb, was ever brought to justice for what they did to people with MKULTRA. That’s because under a national-security state, officials are authorized, even if only implicitly, do engage in any dark-side activity they want to, with impunity. Given the overwhelming power of the national-security branch of the government, the other three branches inevitably defer to its will. (To learn more about Gottlieb and this infamous program, I highly recommend an excellent book entitled Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control by Stephen Kinzer.)
Frank Olson was a federal employee who worked in MKULTRA. Stricken by a crisis of conscience about what he was doing, Olson became a threat to national security. At a CIA social gathering, CIA officials spiked his drink with LSD without telling him, which caused him to experience severe mental problems. Not long after, Olson ostensibly committed suicide by supposedly jumping from a high floor in a New York City hotel.
Olson’s family had never been told about the LSD. The CIA had led them to believe that Olson was just suffering from unexplainable mental problems. However, once the Church Committee disclosed that an unnamed federal employee had committed suicide after having his drink spiked with LSD, the Olson family put two and two together. The CIA confessed to what it had done, and Congress approved a settlement payment to the Olson family. However, many years later, evidence surfaced indicating that Olson hadn’t committed suicide at all but instead had been murdered by CIA operatives who threw him out of that hotel window. The Olson case is set forth in an excellent miniseries on Netflix entitled Wormwood.
The Church Committee also uncovered and disclosed the CIA’s assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the leader of the Congo. The CIA had concluded that Lumumba was a threat to national security because he favored Congo’s drive toward independence from Belgium’s colonial rule. In the eyes of the CIA, he was a communist sympathizer.
The Church Committee also revealed the CIA’s regime-change operations in Chile from 1970 to 1973, including the kidnapping and murder of Gen. Rene Schneider, the commander of the Chilean armed forces.
In the 1970 presidential election, Chilean physician Salvador Allende had won only a plurality of the votes, which meant that the Chilean congress would elect the next president. Since Allende was a socialist, U.S. officials deemed him to be a threat to U.S. national security.
The CIA embarked on a two-step plan to block Allende’s election. First, the CIA engaged in a bribery scheme targeting the members of the Chilean congress. Second, the Pentagon and the CIA incited the Chilean military to take control of the government in a coup.
Schneider said no. He said that the military would abide by the Chilean constitution and by the election results. Therefore, U.S. officials deemed him to be a threat to national security and orchestrated his violent kidnapping. He was shot dead on the streets of Santiago.
Not surprisingly, no one was ever brought to justice for Schneider’s murder, even though part of the conspiracy had clearly taken place in Virginia and Washington, D.C. By this time, the national-security branch of the government had simply grown too powerful. Many years later, when Schneider’s children filed a lawsuit in federal district court for the wrongful killing of their father, the federal judiciary threw them out of court, declaring that America’s federal judiciary would never second-guess any assassination carried out by the national-security establishment.
One of the fascinating aspects of the Chilean coup operations was the secrecy in which the Pentagon and the CIA enveloped their operations. That could be because in some ways, the Chilean coup resembled the national-security regime-change operation against President Kennedy several years before.
For example, in encouraging a national-security-state takeover in Chile, Pentagon and CIA officials were telling Chilean military-intelligence officials that they had a moral duty to remove their democratically elected president from office, notwithstanding the fact that the country’s constitution did not provide for such action. The CIA told them that a country’s constitution was not a “suicide pact,” and, therefore, if a democratically elected president is leading his country to doom, it is the moral duty of the national-security establishment to step in and save the country from this grave threat.
U.S. officials maintained that Allende constituted a grave threat to national security both in the United States and in Chile, not only because he was a socialist but also because he had established normal and friendly relations with the Soviets and the Cubans. Kennedy favored many of the same domestic policies as Allende and, at the time he was killed, was establishing normal and friendly relations with the Soviets and the Cubans.
One of the interesting by-products of the Church Committee involved former CIA Director Richard Helms. In the early 1970s, when Helms was seeking to be appointed a U.S. ambassador, he was asked if the CIA had intervened in Chile’s 1970 presidential election. He said no. Helms’s flagrant perjury came to light during the Church Committee hearings. Helms was given a sweetheart deal by letting him plead to a misdemeanor with no jail time. When he went to CIA headquarters, his former cohorts cheered him for his heroism and patriotism and passed the hat to help him pay his fine.
Needless to say, CIA officials and CIA veterans didn’t praise Frank Church for his heroism and patriotism. They vilified him and claimed that he had severely harmed national security by disclosing the CIA’s dark secrets to the American people and the world. In fact, according to Risen, they later blamed the Church Committee for the 9/11 attacks, claiming that if Church had not disabled the CIA with the disclosure of its dark-side activities, the 9/11 attacks would never have occurred.
As far as the national-security establishment was — and is — concerned, it must wield the omnipotent power to do whatever it deems necessary to protect “national security” and to keep its dark-side activities secret.
Frank Church ran for president in 1976 and lost. In 1989, he lost his bid for reelection to the U.S. Senate. In 1984, he passed away at the age of 59. The national-security establishment, including the CIA, remained in existence, along with its endless series of forever wars. Church’s biggest contribution to the American people might yet bear fruit — his insight that America’s problem is not its forever wars but rather its national-security state.
This article was originally published in the September 2023 issue of Future of Freedom.