The National Interest - National security, national insecurity

But as any savvy insurance agent discovers, there is no end to what might be insured. Buying a house? Insure the house, of course, but also ensure the mortgage payments. Taking a vacation? Insure against bad weather.

Likewise for the United States during the Cold War. America's assorted alliance systems— NATO, SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization), CENTO (Central Treaty Organization), the Rio Pact, ANZUS (the Pacific Security Treaty among Australia, New Zealand, and the United States)—insured not primarily against attacks on the United States but against attacks on countries related, in one way or another, to American security. Pakistan offered electronic listening posts and launchpads for spy planes. Australia pledged troops to the defense of the Middle East, whose oil then meant little to America directly (the United States still exported oil) but meant much to Western Europe. South Vietnam mattered psychologically: if that wobbling domino fell, it would unsettle the neighbors and might ultimately ruin the neighborhood.

This would be bad for American business, which had a bottom-line interest in preserving as much of the world as possible for market penetration. It would also be bad for American morale. Since Plymouth Rock and the "city on the hill" John Winthrop had promised next door at Boston, Americans had always considered themselves the wave of the future. Two communist revolutions in the twentieth century—in Russia and in China—cast serious doubt on this presumption. Additional advances by the communists could only unnerve Americans further.

During the Cold War, the term "national security" often supplanted "national interest" in American political parlance. And security connoted not simply physical security—the ability to fend off foreign attack—but also psychological security. In no other way can the hysteria that gripped the United States during the McCarthy era be explained. Indeed, by most measures the United States was more secure than it had ever been. Its power—military, economic, political—compared to its closest rivals had never been greater. Americans, however, often acted as though they were in greater danger than ever. Red screenwriters and pink professors apparently lurked in every studio and on every campus, ready to deliver America to communist tyranny; accordingly, Congress and the courts mobilized to identify and silence them. Nationalism in Iran and land reform in Guatemala aimed a dagger at America's heart; the Eisenhower administration sent secret warriors to overthrow the offending regimes.

Although much of the danger existed only in American heads (and on the agendas of those elected officials, bureaucrats, arms makers, and others who had profit and career incentives to magnify the communist threat), it was not entirely fabricated. In 1949 the Soviet Union broke the U.S. nuclear monopoly; by the mid-1950s, the Soviet air force possessed hydrogen bombs and long-range bombers; and by the early 1960s, Moscow's strategic rocket forces could deliver the big bombs across oceans and over the pole. For centuries, other countries had lived with the threat of imminent physical attack, but until now the twin moats of the Atlantic and Pacific had protected the United States and allowed Americans the luxury of time in organizing armies when war did come. The nuclear revolution in military technology erased the oceans and collapsed time; with luck, Americans might now get twenty minutes' warning of Soviet attack. By definition, paranoia is unreasonable, but it is not always unexplainable. If the American definition of national security exhibited a certain paranoia during the Cold War—and it did—the country's unaccustomed vulnerability to sudden and potentially annihilating attack was as good an explanation as any.

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