Fletcher Prouty, the CIA, and Modern Politics
At one point in his book, The Secret Team, Fletcher Prouty quotes the motto that adorns the entry way to the CIA building in Langley, Virginia, a motto drawn from the New Testament and chosen by Allen Dulles: “The Truth Shall Set You Free.” Of course, this is from the gospel of John and the words quoted were preceded by the words “You Shall Know the Truth and….” It is worthwhile to analyze this rather famous quotation from the gospel according to John.
It is a rather nice thought, isn’t it? It implies that (1) the truth is accessible to us and (2) once accessed, the truth will set us free. And that’s rather nice. I mean, just think of how Oedipus might respond to these assertions. He learned the truth but it didn’t set him free. In fact, the truth he learned was that he had murdered his father and married his mother. Not so nice.
More generally, it may be asked (1) what if the truth isn’t accessible to us and (2) even if it is accessible, what if it doesn’t make us free? What if, in truth, we are not free, if freedom is an illusion? In other words, the CIA, allegedly bottomed on what Prouty calls “realistic appraisals,” actually rests on naivete’ or an illusion.
Prouty seems unaware of this possibility. For example, he argues that had JFK used the NSC properly – as Ike used it – he, JFK, would have gotten “more realistic appraisals” regarding the planned Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba. Here, Prouty uses the word “realistic” to mean “factual.” And in that sense, there is nothing controversial about Prouty’s argument. However, being realistic in a political sense rests on assumptions that are naïve’, challengeable, and not the result of an assessment of the facts.
Being “realistic politically,” being a “realist,” means being powerful and using that power energetically, as Hamilton would put it. I use to ask early on in my presidency course, that students give me one word that describes what a president should be and, invariably, that word was “powerful.” The word was not intelligent, not imaginative, and certainly not caring, but powerful. For the students, who are good reflections of other Americans, they were just being realistic, as most of the rest of us would be as well if confronted with that question.
That we think of being realistic as being powerful and using that power energetically explains a lot about American politics and its blind spots. For example, anti-communism, which Prouty argues was behind more than one CIA mistaken analysis, is just one manifestation of this realist mindset. That mindset is built around enemies, potential and actual, and so much so that, as Prouty notices, realists at times create enemies, even deadly enemies. So not only were Communists seen as deadly enemies but so too are crime, drugs, viruses, poverty, and even some Muslims. And, of course, it follows that in confronting such enemies realism requires that we prepare for war, whether cold, hot, or domestic. Realistic politics is ultimately an armed or militaristic politics that embraces secrecy both to assess and to oppose covertly our enemies. And the highest officer in the land is designated “the commander in chief,” and certainly not “the caretaker in chief.”
Prouty shares this realistic view of politics. For example, in his assessment of the Bay of Pigs invasion, he asserts that it would have succeeded if US power had been properly applied. And he seems to imply he would have been alright with that invasion if it had been successful. But because of his realism, he fails to ask: If it had worked, would that have benefitted the United States, Cuba, or the world? You see, because they embrace power as the indispensable political virtue, realists like Prouty assume that the answer to this question was “Yes.” Whereas JFK’s answer to this question was, apparently, “No.”
Why no? Because JFK was not
naïve’ enough to think that every successful application or exercise of power would benefit
human beings or improves the human condition. But this naivete’ lies at
or near the core of modern politics – and perhaps at or near the core of all
politics. Think about it. We tend to think that every successful manifestation
of our power – powerful governments, cities, weapons, armies, prisons, asylums,
even vaccines – benefits us and improves the human condition. There is a
wonderful documentary film entitled “Divided Highways,” which is about the creation
of the interstate highway system in the United States, the largest public works
project ever undertaken by human beings anywhere. And what makes the film
intriguing is how it illustrates that the creation of this highway system,
despite the power it reflects and creates, is or should be controversial. Could
it be that the United States would be better off without this powerful highway
system? It’s a legitimate question, only it isn’t for realists. Realists naively think that exercising power is the crux of ameliorating the human condition. They think that this is the truth and that this truth will set us free.
So, and here is a thought Prouty does not and probably cannot wrap his head around: JFK wanted to the Bay of Pigs invasion to fail and because he wanted it to fail he sabotaged it by withholding crucial applications of force in the form of bombers taking out Castro’s air force completely. In other words, JFK acted as if he thought that a successful invasion, which would result in the overthrow of the Castro regime, would not be beneficial to the United States, to Cuba, or to the world. Why can’t Prouty – and others – wrap their heads around this possibility? Because being realists, embracing realistic politics, Prouty and others cannot conceive of the possibility that the successful application of power would not be beneficial.