Living in the World of the Late John Frankenheimer

Photograph Source: Joop van Bilsen / Anefo – Nationaal Archief – CC0

“There may come a time when we have to take collective action” since Donald Trump is “dangerous.  He’s unfit.”

—Secretary of Defense James (“Mad Dog”) Mattis to the Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, 2018.

“We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society.”

—former secretary of defense Mattis in the wake of President Trump’s blasphemous photo opportunity at the St. James’ Episcopal Church, June 2020.

The year 2020 is a time of high anxiety not unlike 1918 when the last year of the First World War One coincided with the first year of the Spanish Flu.  Far more lives were lost in those calamities: 20 million in the case of the First World War; 50 to 100 million in the Spanish Flu. Nevertheless, the United States faced a free and fair election in 1920 that produced a new president from a different political party.  The decade that followed was known as the “Roaring Twenties.”

Today’s horrific scenario has different elements at play: an ignorant and possibly compromised president who has lost his mental moorings; an unusually complex and worrisome scenario without precedent for a presidential election; and the fact that a former secretary of defense, Mattis, a retired four-star general, broached the possibility of a challenge to the president of the United States.  For the first time in U.S. history, we are also facing the possibility that there will be something other than a peaceful succession of presidential power.

The fact that we are talking about current political realities and not a movie scenario is particularly shocking.   Last month, two retired lieutenant colonels, John Nagl and Paul Yingling, wrote an open letter to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, urging him to employ military force to remove the president of the United States if he does not leave office on January 20, 2021.  Not unlike retired General Mattis, these retired officers appeared to be urging an extra-constitutional action, a coup, to remove a president from the White House?

The most likely crisis wouldn’t necessitate a coup.  It is possible that Trump will charge “fraud” if he loses in November.  After all, Trump charged there were “fraudulent votes” in 2016, when he won the election.  If he loses and refuses to leave the White House, then it is up to the Secret Service—and not the military—to restore order.  The possibility of disorder, even violence, is not unlikely if Trump decides to contest a defeat.

The late John Frankenheimer directed two important movies in the 1960s that suggest that our current political reality resembles cinema art.  Donald Trump may not be a “Manchurian candidate,” but his obsequious behavior toward Russian President Vladimir Putin brings to mind Frankeheimer’s suspense thriller “The Manchurian Candidate.”  From the start of his presidency, Trump has taken numerous steps that have isolated the United States and provided openings for greater Russian prominence in the international arena.  The fact that Trump has never convened a cabinet-level meeting or chaired a National Security Council gathering to discuss Russian intervention in the elections of 2016 and 2020 is shocking.  The film, which was released at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, centered on Soviet efforts to employ a sleeper agent to subvert the U.S. government.

Frankenheimer’s “Seven Days in May,” released in 1964, describes a military coup d’etat  to remove a president who has entered arms control agreements with the Soviet Union.  A leading general in the film is modeled after General Curtis LeMay, who was angry with President John F. Kennedy for refusing to provide air support to the Cuban rebels in the Bay of Pigs invasion, and General Edwin Walker, who actually indoctrinated his troops with right-wing and vociferously anti-communist views.  The film is set six years into the future after a stalemated war in Iran of all places.

While it is preposterous to even imagine that Trump is that “Manchurian candidate” or that the military is plotting against the president in some “deep state” fashion, there is an obvious danger in the threat to the balance between the civilian and military communities in national security decision making that now extends to civilian control over the military.  Since President Richard Nixon’s creation of the all-volunteer military in the early 1970s, the professional military has drifted too far away from the norms of American society; has become politically right-wing politically; and has become much more religious (and fundamentalist) than the country as a whole.  Over the past 50 years, the military has lost wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan; nevertheless, it has gained greater influence over foreign policy. The Department of Defense has effectively outmaneuvered the Department of State in the implementation of policy.

Several administrations have contributed to the making of this imbalance.  The Reagan administration endorsed the Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986 that enhanced the political and military role of regional commanders-in-chief (CINCs) and marginalized the Department of State and the civilian leadership of the Department of Defense.  The act created a more powerful Joint Chiefs of Staff and made the chairman of the Joint Chiefs the key military adviser to the president.  The act passed the Senate without genuine debate and not even one vote of opposition.

The Clinton administration’s major contribution to the weakening of the civilian role in conceptualizing national security policy was eliminating the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the United States Information Service, and weakening the Agency for International Development.  President Bill Clinton bowed to the opposition of the Pentagon, when he walked away from such international agreements as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the International Criminal Court, the ban on cluster bombs, and the ban on land mines.

President Barack Obama tilted in the direction of the military in making key national security appointments.  His first national security adviser was a retired Marine General, James Jones, who failed miserably.  His first director of national intelligence was Admiral Dennis Blair, who also failed.  Obama appeared to be intimidated by the professional military at the outset of his presidency, retaining Robert Gates as secretary of defense in order to pacify the preferences of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  When Obama appointed General David Petraeus the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the militarization of the intelligence community appeared complete.  Petraeus was a remarkable embarrassment as well.

Ironically, it is Donald Trump who initially worsened the civilian-military imbalance by surrounding himself with a group of general officers who lacked the experience for the positions they received.  Trump ignored warnings from both President Obama and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie in appointing Lt. General Michael Flynn his national security adviser.  Flynn lasted less than a month as national security adviser, and continues to face sentencing for lying to the FBI.  Marine General Mattis required a waiver from both the Senate and the House of Representatives to be confirmed as secretary of defense; only Generals George C. Marshall and Colin Powell received such waivers in the past.  General John Kelly served as both secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and White House chief of staff.  In a further irony, both Mattis and Kelly ultimately resigned from the administration after failing to curb the excesses of the president and eventually acknowledging that the president was “unfit” to serve as commander-in-chief.

Donald Trump has created a terrible world at home and abroad; he has unmade U.S. foreign policy and he has created domestic chaos.  But the cure cannot be more serious than the disease.  The military should not have such an enhanced role in the making of national security policy, let alone in determining the presidency of the United States.  The Preamble to the Constitution refers to the importance of ensuring domestic tranquility, which Trump clearly has not done.  Until Trump’s recent attacks on the military, there was the danger of the increased politicization of the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  General Powell, while serving as secretary of state in the Bush administration, certainly politicized intelligence in his infamous address to the United Nations Security Council in the run-up to the Iraq War.  Now, we have the contemptuous statements of retired general officers toward the president of the United States, which is a terrible precedent, and the possibility of a role for the military in the removal of a president.  As Garrison Keillor warned two years ago, it appears that it will get worse before it gets worse.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for