The following is a nonverbatim transcript of a talk that I delivered on September 1, 2023, at the young scholar’s segment of the annual conference on foreign policy sponsored by the Ron Paul Institute and held at the Dulles Hilton in Virginia.
The biggest mistake America has ever made was the conversion of the federal government to a national-security state. That conversion has served as the greatest destroyer of our rights and liberties, our democratic processes, and our economic and financial well-being.
What is a national-security state? It is a type of governmental structure in which the government wields totalitarian-like, dark-side powers. To employ the title of one of Ludwig von Mises’s books, it is omnipotent government.
America’s national-security state is composed of separate but interrelated entities — the Pentagon, the vast military-industrial complex, including an enormous empire of domestic and foreign military bases, the CIA, the NSA, and, to a certain extent, the FBI. But it’s important to recognize that this is actually just one great big military apparatus that is divided into parts, much like the military is divided into the Air Force, Army, and Navy.
America was not always a national-security state. Our nation began with a completely different type of governmental structure, a limited-government republic, which came with a relatively small, basic military force. When the Constitution proposed this type of government, proponents made clear that this government’s powers would be strictly limited to those that were enumerated in the Constitution. If a particular power wasn’t enumerated, it simply could not be legally exercised.
If the president or the Congress did exercise an unconstitutional power, it was the responsibility of the judicial branch of the government to declare the exercise of such power unconstitutional and, therefore, null and void.
Americans were still leery about the enumerated-powers concept. The last thing they wanted was a government whose officials were exercising omnipotent powers. In fact, one thing is beyond dispute: If the Constitution had proposed a national-security state rather than a limited-government republic, there is no possibility whatsoever that our American ancestors would have accepted the Constitution. In that case, America would have continued operating under the Articles of Confederation, a third type of governmental system in which the federal government’s powers were so weak that federal officials did not even have the power to tax.
Today, the two most important words in the American political lexicon are “national security.” Everything in society ultimately revolves around that term. Moreover, in a national-security state, secrecy is everything. Secret records, secret proceedings, and secret operations are an inherent part of any national-security state. Additionally, the national-security state’s totalitarian-like powers are justified under the rubric of protecting “national security.”
In a limited-government republic, on the other hand, there is no concept of “national security.” That’s because the government’s powers are strictly limited to those enumerated in the Constitution, none of which refers to “national security.” Thus, under a limited-government republic, governmental operations are transparent rather than shrouded in secrecy. There are also, of course, no totalitarian-like, dark-side powers because such powers are not enumerated in the Constitution.
It’s worth pointing out that a limited-government republic was not the only difference between our nation’s founding principles and those under which we live today. Our nation’s founding foreign policy was one of noninterventionism. It was encapsulated in John Quincy Adams’s Fourth of July speech to Congress in 1821, entitled “In Search of Monsters to Destroy.”
Adams pointed out that there are lots of horrific, monstrous things that take place in the world, such as brutal dictatorships, wars, revolutions, invasions, coups, torture, civil wars, and famines. It was the policy of the United States, however, to not send troops abroad to save people from any of those monsters. Adams observed that should America ever abandon this foreign policy of noninterventionism, the federal government would inevitably acquire the characteristics of a dictatorship.
An interesting aspect of this noninterventionist foreign policy, however, was America’s system of open immigration. It sent the following message to the people of the world: If you find yourself suffering under dictatorship, war, famine, or other monstrous conditions, and you are willing and able to escape, know that there will always be at least one nation to which you can flee that will not forcibly return you to those monstrous conditions in your country of origin.
The Fifth Amendment
One of the things that the American people feared most was a government that wielded the power to kill them arbitrarily, either through assassination or extra-judicial execution. When the debate over whether to accept the Constitution was taking place, proponents pointed out that such power was not among the enumerated powers in the Constitution and, therefore, the American people did not need to be concerned about that possibility.
That, however, wasn’t good enough for our American ancestors. Immediately after the ratification of the Constitution, they demanded the enactment of the Bill of Rights, which expressly prohibited federal officials from assassinating or extra-judicially executing people they had taken into custody, including American citizens.
That’s what the Fifth Amendment was partly all about. It prohibited the federal government from killing anyone without due process of law, which meant formal notice of charges (e.g., an indictment) and a formal trial that, owing to the Sixth Amendment, could be a jury trial rather than one in which a judge decided the guilt of the accused.
With the conversion of the federal government to a national-security state, that Fifth Amendment safeguard went out the window — and without even the semblance of a constitutional amendment. The federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court, recognized that as a practical matter, it could never enforce its orders against the Pentagon, the CIA, and the NSA because a team of deputy U.S. marshals would never be a match for an army brigade or a well-armed team of expert CIA assassins. Thus, from the time the conversion took place, the federal judiciary chose to abrogate its responsibility to enforce the Constitution against the national-security branch of the government — that is, the Pentagon, the CIA, and the NSA.
For example, let’s assume that the president and the DEA, faced with their decades-long failed war on drugs, decided to adopt a policy of shoot-on-sight for any person suspected of violating federal drug laws. There is virtually no doubt that the federal judiciary would immediately issue an injunction against such a policy, based on the restriction set forth in the Fifth Amendment.
However, let’s assume that the Pentagon and the CIA decided to adopt a policy of shoot-on-sight for any person suspected of violating federal terrorism statutes. There is no doubt that the federal judiciary would choose not to enforce the Fifth Amendment against them, choosing instead to defer to their power.
A veneer of power
Longtime readers of my work know that I have long recommended a book entitled National Security and Double Government by Michael J. Glennon. I wish every American would read this book. Glennon is a professor of law at Tufts University and a former counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Glennon’s thesis, to which I subscribe, is that it is the national-security branch of the government that is in charge of running the federal government. All the other three branches defer to its orders, commands, and preferences, especially with respect to foreign policy. The national-security branch permits the other three branches — executive, legislative, and judicial — to maintain the appearance of power so that Americans do not realize what is going on. The national-security branch doesn’t care about appearances. What it cares about is power itself.
Recall the Chilean coup of 1973, one that was fully supported by the U.S. national-security establishment. In that coup, the Chilean national-security establishment took full control of the government. The executive branch and the national-security branch were merged into one branch, with a military general — Gen. Augusto Pinochet — becoming president and head of the Chilean national-security establishment.
The other two branches — the legislative branch and the judicial branch — were permitted to continue operating but simply deferred to the overarching power of the combined executive and national-security branch. Everyone knew that if the legislative or judicial branches were to challenge the constitutionality or the authority of the combined executive/national-security branch, those two branches would quickly be put down.
That’s essentially how the U.S. government operates. It is the unelected military-intelligence establishment that is in charge of running the federal government. The other three branches, while maintaining the veneer of power, are actually operating in deferential support of the national-security branch.
America’s forever wars
Let’s now turn to America’s history of forever wars under our national-security-state governmental structure.
America’s conversion to a national-security state took place after World War II, although arguably the foundation for the conversion was already taking place during the war. After all, when the Pentagon was being built from 1941–1943, it would not have been difficult to assume that it was not intended to be a temporary wartime facility.
At the time that the conversion was being contemplated, President Truman was told that if he was to garner the support of the American people, he would have to scare the “hell out of them.”
That’s what the Cold War was all about. The American people were told that there was an international communist conspiracy based in Moscow that was designed to put the entire world, including the United States, under communist rule. The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming! There was even a movie with that title. The Reds, Americans were told, were everywhere. That’s what the infamous McCarthy hearings were all about — to ferret out the Reds , directed by the U.S. Communist Party, in the State Department, the military, Hollywood, and everywhere else. It is impossible to overstate the hysteria that came with the anticommunist crusade. One right-wing group even accused President Eisenhower of being an agent of the Reds.
Thus, the Cold War — and the deep, hysterical fear that came with it — became the justification for the conversion of the federal government to a national-security state. The premise was that since the communist regimes did not have to concern themselves with constitutional restrictions, they would have an advantage over the United States, where federal officials had their hands tied by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. As soon as the Cold War was over and won, however, Americans would be able to have their limited-government republic back.
Thus, America’s first Cold War official enemy became the Soviet Union, which, ironically, had just recently been a partner and ally of the United States in the successful quest to defeat Nazi Germany in World War II.
Korea and Vietnam
And then came a hot war — the Korean War, which was actually nothing more than a civil war. But since North Korea was a communist regime, Americans were told, it was necessary for the United States to intervene militarily to prevent the Reds from prevailing. If that were to happen, Americans were told, the chances of a communist takeover of the United States would soar. Interestingly, many American men had to be forced through conscription to fight (and die) in this war, which, they were told, was for “freedom.”
Then came the Vietnam War, in which more than 58,000 of my generation were sacrificed in the name of keeping America “free.” Many of them also had to be forced through conscription to fight and die for what they were told was “freedom.” Once again, the premise was that if the United States didn’t stop the Reds in Vietnam, they would soon be in San Francisco, Dallas, New York, and Bangor. Interestingly enough, after the United States lost the war, the Reds never made it to the United States to conquer even just one city or town.
The war on Iraq and the war on terrorism
The Cold War continued, and then in 1989, it suddenly and unexpectedly came to an end, ostensibly. No problem. The Persian Gulf War soon followed, along with 11 years of deadly sanctions against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who, ironically, had been a partner and ally of U.S. officials during the 1980s.
A decade of sanctions that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children led inevitably to retaliation with terrorist attacks such as the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, the attack on the USS Cole warship, the attacks on the U.S. embassies in East Africa, and then the 9/11 attacks, which brought America the much-vaunted “war on terrorism,” which arguably was an even better racket than the Cold War racket.
The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq
Then came the deadly and destructive invasions and long-term occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, which produced the perpetual threat of terrorist retaliation. When that massive death toll came to an end with the Taliban defeat of U.S. forces, the American people were not even given time to ponder and reflect on what had happened. That’s because the Ukraine crisis immediately followed.
NATO, Ukraine, and the new Cold War
When I stated that the Cold War had “ostensibly” ended in 1989, I meant that the U.S. national-security establishment was not ready to let go of that racket so easily. Knowing that there was always the possibility that its “war-on-terrorism” racket could fizzle out, the Pentagon and the CIA hedged their bets by using NATO to begin absorbing former members of the Warsaw Pact, enabling the United States to install its missiles, tanks, bases, and troops ever closer to Russia’s border.
Never mind that U.S. officials had promised Russia that NATO would not move one inch to the east. Since the Pentagon and the CIA had not signed on to those promises, they were considered null and void under our national-security-state form of governmental structure.
Everyone knew what the result was going to be, especially since Russia warned them what the result was going to be. For decades, Russia objected to NATO’s move eastward and always made it clear that Ukraine was their “red line,” much as Cuba is the U.S. national-security establishment’s “red line.” When U.S. officials made waves about making Ukraine a member of NATO, they knew as an absolute fact that Russia would invade Ukraine, just as the Pentagon would invade Cuba if Russia or China were to install missiles, troops, bases, and tanks there.
The U.S. national-security establishment now had its old Cold War racket back, along with the same old anti-Russia hysteria that had been inculcated in the American people during the Cold War.
But there is something important to note about the war in Ukraine: Even if antiwar advocates succeed in bringing an end to that war, it won’t make any difference whatsoever. That’s because another forever war is always waiting in the wings. It could be China over Taiwan. Iran is always a good option. So is North Korea.
Sen. Frank Church
I would like to recommend another great book, entitled The Last Honest Man by James Risen. It is a biography of former U.S. senator Frank Church from Idaho. Church was the head of what became known as the Church Committee, which succeeded in disclosing many of the secret, totalitarian-like, dark-side activities of the CIA, including MKULTRA, its support of the Chilean coup, and some of its secret state-sponsored assassinations and assassination attempts under the rubric of protecting “national security.”
Church was also one of the principal opponents of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Naturally, he was called every name in the book — traitor, coward, appeaser, weakling, and all the other epithets that are directed toward those who oppose America’s forever wars.
One of the things that stunned me as I was reading that book was that Church figured out what all too many antiwar advocates cannot bring themselves to acknowledge: that the forever wars are a direct consequence of America being a national-security state. In other words, so long as America is a national-security state, America will continue to be besieged by an endless series of forever wars, which means a continuous, permanent destruction of the rights and liberties of the American people, continuous out-of-control federal spending and debt, and ever-growing monetary debauchery at the hands of the Federal Reserve.
It’s not as though we haven’t been warned. The Founding Fathers fiercely opposed “standing armies,” which was their term for a national-security state. In his Farewell Address, President Eisenhower, a West Point graduate and the commander of Allied forces in World War II, warned that the “military-industrial complex” posed a grave risk to the rights and liberties and democratic processes of the American people. President Kennedy prevailed on friends in Hollywood to make the novel Seven Days in May, which posited the threat of a military takeover here in the United State, into a movie to serve as a warning to the American people. Thirty days after Kennedy was assassinated, President Truman had an op-ed published in the Washington Post stating that the CIA had become a sinister force in American life.
Yes, the conversion of the federal government to a national-security state was the biggest mistake America has ever made. But mistakes can be corrected. The best thing Americans could do today is restore their founding governmental system of a limited-government republic — and do so before it is too late.
This article was published in the November 2023 edition of Future of Freedom.