An academic study published two years ago, about machinations in post-World War One America, may have more to tell us about today’s politics than much of current journalism. Dominick Jenkins’ THE FINAL FRONTIER; AMERICA, SCIENCE, AND TERROR (Verso 2002) is an essay in American history, the history of technology, and contemporary politics — with observations, mostly germane, on other matters. It is in the first place a detailed attack on two myths about the history of the United States, viz.,
(1) that American foreign policy for a hundred years has been an interaction between, on the one hand, unilateralism and isolationism, traced back to Theodore Roosevelt and identified with the Republican party, and on the other, multilateralism and engagement, ascribed to Woodrow Wilson and the Democratic party; and
(2) that the US government’s conjunction with science began with the Manhattan Project (which during World War II built the first atomic bombs), was necessitated by war-time conditions, and persisted during the Cold War because of the need for “nuclear deterrence.”
On the contrary, Jenkins argues that the federal government and “big science” struck a malign bargain at the time of the First World War, to their mutual enhancement and the growth of “terror.” Jenkins, a researcher at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University (UK), does not offer a concise definition of that last term, but his book makes clear that he would not disagree with the definition of terror quoted by Noam Chomsky from a US army manual: “the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature. This is done through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear.”
Certainly our current usage would add a distinction that the army manual rather disturbingly doesn’t make — that this violence is directed against civilians. As Chomsky points out, it’s difficult to craft a definition of terror that doesn’t also describe the foreign policy of the US for the past century. THE FINAL FRONTIER examines how that came to be. The mating of presidential authority and science in the rank sweat of the enseamed bed of imperialism — urged on by the class anxieties of the American elite — produced the monstrous birth of 20th-century technological terror.
Jenkins begins with a striking illustration — an article from a New York newspaper describing an attack on that city: “The sun rose today on a city whose tallest tower lay scattered in crumbled bits of stone … The sun saw, when its light penetrated the ruins, hordes of people on foot, working their way very slowly and painfully up the island … Rich and poor alike, welded together in a real democracy of misery, headed northward.”
Not a description of the attacks of 11 September 2001, those lines appeared in the New York Herald for 30 July 1921 under the headline “City in Theoretical Ruins from Air Raid.” The article tells how “General Billy Mitchell of the US Army Air Service had led a force of heavy bombers from Virginia to New York … in a simulated bombing raid.” Eighty years before 9/11, the maverick military careerist was demonstrating how techniques growing out of the late Great War would be employed in the next. The Herald observed, “The majority had died swiftly of poison gas.”
The book that begins with this signal introduction (“New York in Ruins”) has three parts. In the first, Jenkins relates what he calls the hitherto “untold story of how America [in the wake of World War I] came to see itself as the guardian of international law with the right to use high-technology terror to deal with outlaw states.” If you think the sort of fear whipped up amongst Americans by the government-media propaganda campaign against Iraq in 2002 was fantastic — Americans becoming the only people in the world who were actually afraid of Saddam Hussein — then read about how the military and the chemical industry tried to convince Americans after World War I that a defeated Germany represented a dire threat to the US. (One can argue that even Nazi Germany did not represent such a threat, twenty years later — as is suggested by the facts that the US didn’t bother to declare war against Germany until the reverse occurred; and that the Second World War was won in the East: even after Normandy, until the end of the war, the large majority of German troops were engaged against the Soviet Union.)
In the second part Jenkins considers the domestic political campaign at the outset of the 20th century that made America’s imperialist out-thrust possible and in a sense necessary. He refers (without mentioning him) to Frederick Jackson Turner’s classic “frontier thesis” of the United States, which suggests among other things that the “frontier” — land taken in the “Indian wars” (which to this day remain a model for the US military)– acted as a safety valve for class antagonisms in the US, a safety valve that was shut off with the closing of the continental frontier. First set out in academic form in 1893, the idea was taken up by elite elements in the US — Jenkins illustrates it especially from the writings of the first Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and the cabinet member and senator Elihu Root (who in 1912 received the Nobel Peace Prize — his being as sardonically amusing as Henry Kissinger’s). These “patrician reformers” proposed a “final frontier” abroad for Americans, which they hoped would have the same salutary social effect on the lower orders as Jackson Turner said the continental frontier had had. It was “a diabolical deal,” says Jenkins. “In return for accepting elite rule and giving up Americans’ struggle to extend democracy within the United States, the elite would praise them as heroes fighting to extend democracy throughout the world.” This conscious propaganda campaign at the beginning of the 20th century has obvious parallels at the beginning of the 21st.
In the final part of the book, Jenkins “argue[s] against the idea that science and technology must inevitably lead to new means for exercising terror.” He insists that citizens must instead exercise their democratic rights “to intervene in decisions about the direction of scientific research and technological development” and “decide in which direction new scientific research and technological development should proceed.” He thinks that, since “we no longer have strong emotional investments in the partisan disputes of this era” — namely, World War I, the time of the first marriage of imperial policy and technology — the dangers will perhaps be easier to discern than in our own.
His account of the era accurately reveals Roosevelt as a pompous fraud and Wilson as a conniving racist, and how “military professionals” began the militarization of the US a generation after Appomattox, when the social advances of Reconstruction had been reversed and the revulsion against the blood-letting of the Civil War had begun to ebb. (I think one of the things that would astonish an American of a century ago, suddenly revived today like the man in Edward Bellamy’s LOOKING BACKWARD, would be how militarized American society has become.) “In the light of Wilson’s use of terror to support the liberal capitalist world revolution,” Jenkins writes, “it is entirely appropriate that, as well as naming an aircraft carrier the ‘Theodore Roosevelt,’ the US Navy has named a ballistic missile submarine the ‘Woodrow Wilson.'”
Jenkins does not always avoid cliché, and there are some peculiar slips, like the spelling of “Gettysburg” and the date of the Spanish-American War, which may have to do with British proof-readers. But he’s writing about America, and some Briticisms actively work against him (e.g., “tabling” a resolution means a different thing across the Atlantic). Of course, the poets always get there first, and as I read Jenkins, I was constantly reminded of the novels of Pat Barker, the British writer born during the Second World War whose novels are haunted by the legacy of the First.
The Bush administration’s lies in support of its invasion of Iraq recapitulate the story that Jenkins tells. The neocon propaganda campaign, commencing in earnest in September of 2002, depended on the parallel between chemical and nuclear weapons. “Taking advantage of public fears of the unknown, Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons were equated with nuclear weapons,” Jenkins writes. “This was reinforced by the use of the term ‘weapons of mass destruction’ which placed all three in the same category, despite the fact that nuclear weapons are both vastly more destructive and militarily more effective. This allowed Iraqi chemical and biological weapons to be equated with America’s nuclear weapons.”
Unfortunately, the story has opened a new and even more dangerous chapter at the turn of the 21st century. Current American governments, Republican and Democrat, have plans to extend the dominance of technological terror that he describes. Chomsky wrote recently in HEGEMONY OR SURVIVAL,
The basic rationale was explained in [the US Air Force] brochure “Vision for 2020.” The primary goal is announced prominently on the front cover: “dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect US interests and investment.” This is the next phase of the historic task of military forces. “During the westward expansion of the continental United States, military outposts and the cavalry emerged to protect our wagon trains, settlements, and railroads” … And “nations built navies to protect and enhance their commercial interests.” The next logical step is space forces to protect “U.S. National Interests [military and commercial] and Investments.” The US role in space should be comparable to that of “navies protecting sea commerce,” though now with a sole hegemon, far more overwhelming than the British Navy in centuries past … [That will require] “Full Spectrum Dominance”: overwhelming military dominance on land, sea, and air as well as space, so that the US will be “preeminent in any from of conflict,” in peace or war. The need for such dominance will mount as a result of the increasing “globalization of the economy,” which is expected to bring about “a widening between `haves’ and `have-nots’,” an assessment shared by US intelligence in its projections for 2015…”
Jenkins’ wide-ranging and important book sometimes shows evidence of unassimilated scholarship, and he is perhaps too impressed with some recently-fashionable “postmodern” critics — from the quite interesting Susan Buck-Morss to the largely forgettable Jean-Francois Lyotard. At one point, Kenneth Grahame’s children’s classic, THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS (1908) makes an unexpected appearance as a not-too-implausible allegory for the imperialistic outlook of Grahame’s friend, Theodore Roosevelt.
It’s arguable that Jenkins has tried to do too much in a book that he says was “many years in the making.” In his final chapter, “Manifesto for a Global Deep Science Movement,” he spends three pages discussing the atom-bombing of Hiroshima as an act of terror (as it surely was), followed immediately by four pages on Immanuel Kant’s 1795 essay, “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophic Sketch,” before getting around to explaining what he means by “deep science” and setting out some maxims for it. (On the model of the deep ecology movement, which “is committed to identifying and challenging the fundamental causes of environmental destruction,” deep science “is committed to changing the direction of science and technology where, in seeking to answer human needs or satisfy human curiosity, they are actually leading to relations of control.”)
But Jenkins does have a terrifying story to tell, possibly the most important and dangerous of the last hundred years — how the US government has prepared for, threatened, and carried out technological mass murder, with a bodyguard of lies to protect it from its greatest enemy, the US public. It has been said that if Americans actually knew what was being done in their name, they would be appalled. THE FINAL FRONTIER gives substance to that charge.
Carl Estabrook is a Visiting Scholar University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a CounterPunch columnist. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org