One area in which we in the US can still stake a claim to lead the world is the politics of paranoia, as Richard Hofstadter’s immortal essay made clear. And he wasn’t just talking about your garden-variety crazies like Ben Carson or Mike Huckabee; paranoia reaches even the highest rungs of the political ladder, as Richard Nixon so admirably demonstrated.
James Forrestal, one of my favorite examples, had a long string of impressive accomplishments, from excelling at (though not graduating from) Princeton, to claiming the first flag raised by American forces at Iwo Jima (the second flag-raising was captured in the famous photograph), to pushing racial integration in the Navy when his predecessor as Secretary of the Navy died of a heart attack and he became Secretary, to becoming our first Secretary of Defense. He was famously and uncompromisingly anti-Communist and anti-Soviet, concerned that the evil represented by Communism exerted a strong pull on societies decimated by the Second World War. His belief that Communism would not cease in attacking until it had destroyed all representative government might sound a bit paranoid, but Eisenhower, with whom Forrestal consulted during the War, apparently wrote in his personal diary that he “never had cause to doubt the accuracy” of Forrestal’s judgments on the issue. That level of paranoia, in other words, was pretty normal in those days.
After the war, Forrestal urged Truman to take a hard line with the Soviets over Poland. He also strongly influenced the new Wisconsin Senator, Joseph McCarthy, concerning infiltration of the government by Communists. Upon McCarthy’s arrival in Washington in December 1946, Forrestal invited him to lunch. In McCarthy’s words, “Before meeting Jim Forrestal I thought we were losing to international Communism because of incompetence and stupidity on the part of our planners. I mentioned that to Forrestal. I shall forever remember his answer. He said, ‘McCarthy, consistency has never been a mark of stupidity. If they were merely stupid, they would occasionally make a mistake in our favor.’ This phrase struck me so forcefully that I have often used it since.”
In the end Forrestal was asked to resign as SecDef and was quietly transferred to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda where the cover of his psychiatric diagnosis of depression could be maintained. For the same reason they placed him on the 16th floor. Unfortunately, his body was later found on the roof of the third floor, with some reports claiming a bathrobe sash cord was tied around his neck. While he had never been given an official diagnosis of paranoia, it was rumored that he harbored a physical and individualized fear that Communists were coming to get him. On the other hand, given his opposition to the partitioning of Palestine it is likely that he was in fact being followed, though probably not by Communists.
Poor guy, and what a paranoid and inaccurate conception of the world! To imagine that your putative enemy is so powerful that they never make mistakes and are completely consistent, properties unknown to human organizations or even individuals. They are aggressive and relentless, and the complete destruction of your way of governing and thus of your culture is their only motivation. They are not, in short, human, but simultaneously both superhuman and subhuman. And to imagine this was true of the Soviets, who lost an entire generation of men, had been reduced to poverty nearly everywhere, and were struggling to feed their people and rebuild their devastated country! But paranoia builds its own sorts of reverse-Potemkin villages.
If only Forrestal had lived in the time of gyrocoptors! But his spirit lives on in the senior Senator from South Carolina.
“He should have been subject to being shot out of the sky,” Graham said. “I don’t know why he wasn’t, but our nation is under siege. Radical Islam is a threat to our home land. There are probably radical Islamic cells in our backyard already.”
“If somebody is willing to, you know, approach vital government infrastructure, they should do so at their own peril,” Graham continued.
Even the Washington Times couldn’t swallow that one whole: “The small vehicle was unarmed and likely would not make a formidable weapon, even if used kamikaze-style.”
This man has a vote on serious matters. Or would if the Republican Congress ever made an effort to address its responsibilities. In practice, however, so little happens in the Senate that Lindsey gets antsy, talks of running for President, and starts singing war chants with his BFF.
Which way’s the boogeyman comin’ from, Senators?