The Invisible Boy

The Building looms over the Potomac across sixty years of war and peace, through six decades of memory. A forbidden temple even now, when I am older—imagine how the sight of it hit the child who first came here with his dad.

What did I know? Young, pining at the slick, slanting terrazzo, I wanted nothing more than the place for my very own, the largest playhouse in the world. Five sides, five stories, five rings by alphabet, four moats, seven spokes, triple the square footage of the Empire State Building, covering thirty full acres, a mile in circumference, with seventeen and a half miles of looping corridors in which to run.1 But the ramps were best, and at five sharp the workers made for their cars, like shells bumpedy-bumpedy after the tide. I watched them go, glad to have the place to myself, because my dad worked late. I tried counting the rush-hour refugees, but there were more people than any place outside China, which Dad was watching. When they were gone, with no chrome helmets in sight, I stepped out of my shoes for the slick glide of stocking feet down the ramps.

There were eighteen dining rooms that served sixty thousand meals a day. There were two barber shops, a drugstore, a vaccination clinic, five “beverage bars,” each with more swivel stools than even a swift lad like me could set to spinning. There were six hundred drinking fountains, and I sipped from most of them. A clock room had the right time for every place right down to Moscow, Russia. Grown-up men rode three-wheeled bikes with baskets, messengers with their bells blasting—make way for secrets! In corners stood faded battle flags attached to spears, with streamers flowing from the blades. On the walls hung paintings of warplanes and horses, tanks and deadeyed men. Parthenon, Pantheon—I couldn’t keep the words straight. Call it Paradise. It was not so much to want for a lad of ten.

I was the invisible boy, keen, brimming with stealth, spying it all from my unnoted perch in the rush-hour throng, or standing stock-still against the wall, which was the color of a robin’s egg. A boy could get lost, and I did. No windows to mark, no signs, just numbers and letters painted everywhere. It was dangerous to lose my way; they could shoot me for being a spy. Open no door, speak to no stranger. I will tell them, if asked, I am going to the john. Even if they torture me, I will not tell them about my father.

That was the real wonder—Dad worked here! He was uniformed, like all those others—tan or blue, depending on the season, but always hatless in the vast indoors. In the early morning, I would have watched him at the sink: slapping on after-shave, shining a shoe on the edge of the toilet bowl, adjusting the silver stars on the shoulders of his coat, making sure the points were aligned. And then, click—my father striding into the Building, taking salutes, returning them with the very fingers that snapped to the music of the car radio as we drove home.

Soon that primal identification of man and building would form the unslippable knot of my young life, forever tying me to the mystical stake in the middle of the five-sided courtyard, if I could only find it. Corridors and Corregidors, dead ends and deadly force, hallway ramps and Pork Chop Hill—it was so easy to get lost looking for the center of the maze. At last a window! I ran to it. But that courtyard, seen from the window in the center ring, was always a surprise. In the hub of the world’s fortress was grass, a patch of grass, green, vacant, growing there like a spillover plot from the cemetery on the hill. Even I knew that the proximity to Arlington made the Pentagon the largest tombstone in the world. As for the courtyard, its five little acres must have been God’s to warrant such protection.

But I knew. That courtyard, stillpoint of the swirling Building, was also known as ground zero,2 focus of the Soviet aiming device, the last grass when the next smoke clears. I thought grass in such a place was wrong, perhaps a provocation. They should pave it over, make it a parking lot for tanks, I thought. A helipad. A paratrooper’s landing place. The enemy come at last. Invasion. I turned from the window with a secret of my own, my first, my center ring,my acre of God,my soul,my first fear, but not my last:Who is the enemy? Who the friend? And what, after all, is to be done?3 I hustled, not quite running (Don’t let them know you don’t belong here, fool!), through the tiled forest, minefield, no man’s land, searching for my Air Force father’s office, looking for my dad.

* * *

The ceremonial groundbreaking for the Building’s construction, on September 11, 1941,4 took place sixty years, almost to the minute, before American Airlines flight 77 arrowed into the side of the Pentagon that faces Arlington Cemetery. As the world seemed to grasp on September 11, 2001, it turned out that there was a poignant vulnerability to the headquarters building of the American military establishment, by far the mightiest martial force in history. “Unmistakably marked for potential enemies from the air,” the biographer of General George Marshall had written years before 9/11, “it seemed to invite attack as well as to radiate resistance to the foes of the United States.”5

For square footage of floor space, the Pentagon would be surpassed only by New York’s World Trade Center, in 1973. Once American flight 11 and United flight 175 had brought the twin towers down, the Pentagon, though wounded, resumed its place as the nation’s largest building. But in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Building looked strangely fragile. Soon a kind of huge bandage was stretched into place, hiding the broken wall. An American flag was positioned over that construction tarp. As the nation’s trauma centered on New York, the Pentagon moved to the margin of communal awareness, where it had always been.

When the Building was hit by flight 77, I recognized for the first time in years how the Pentagon had seared my soul when I was a boy. The universal grief and pain of September 11 was, in my case, centered on an ache attached to Arlington—an ache that tied the trauma to a line running through my life.

After my initial infatuation with the Pentagon, I had been conscripted into youthful criticism of America’s wars, and therefore of the Building’s work. September 11 could seem to be the American Cold War nightmare come a little late, an approximation of the mushroom cloud, complete with its own ground zero. That the terrorists had included the Pentagon in their assault seemed, even amid the outrage of that day’s mayhem, somehow inevitable. American power was being attacked that day—economic power, military power, and, if the airliner downed in Pennsylvania had reached its target, thought to be the Capitol or the White House, political power. The haste with which the gap in the southern wall of the edifice in Arlington was covered up, and the efficiency with which Defense Department headquarters was moved to the edge of the field of national attention in the months and years after September 11, raised questions of their own, at least for me.

What does the Pentagon mean, actually, to the United States of America? How is its influence felt, its power exercised? Since ground was broken in 1941, what has the Building’s effect been on the nation’s sense of itself, its place in the world? How has the struggle for the American soul been won or lost here? Those questions, among others, form the spine of this book.

The story it tracks begins with one man, General Leslie Groves, who embodied the twin centers of a previously unimagined source of power. Another man, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, saw the new danger at once and warned of it, to no avail. After Stimson, dozens of others would sound alarms as the Pentagon usurped controls over the levers of the American economy and culture, over science, academia, and politics. “Disastrous rise” is Dwight Eisenhower’s phrase, from his farewell address warning of what he dubbed the “military-industrial complex.”

The Pentagon has been so much at the center of national life that one could write an entire history of the contemporary United States in its terms. This history aims at less, and will not take on large but tangential questions like the impact of Pentagon racial policies on the civil rights movement, or the restructuring of academia that resulted from the infusion of Pentagon funds into university budgets. The Pentagon had a powerful impact on the American media, but that, too, is beyond our interest here. Relations between the executive branch and the Congress were recast when the government’s center of gravity moved across the Potomac, and that development will find its way into this story, but only indirectly.

Our subject concerns, more simply, the ways in which the accumulation of Pentagon power effected what amounted to a mutation in the meaning of American power, with cosmic consequences both at home and abroad.Harry Truman, Dean Acheson, and James Forrestal anchor one end of the narrative, with Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Colin Powell, and George W. Bush tying down the other, with figures like George Kennan, Paul Nitze, Curtis LeMay, Robert McNamara, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Cheney unspooling the line between. A classic saga, the story of the Pentagon’s rise marks an ongoing melding of personal and public paranoia, of psychological and political stresses, a process by which unsubstantiated ephemera were again and again transformed into tangible reality, taking on heft and moral gravitas.6

Nuclear weapons inform the tale from start to finish, but more as the gods of a new religion than as mere instruments of war. Anti-Communism gives that religion its first theology, and its first heresy hunt. But America’s bipolar mindset survives the disappearance of Communism, as the Cold War bleeds into the Global War on Terror, with “evil” making its stunning comeback in the new century, and appeals to religion becoming more overt than ever. Always, the Pentagon remains the nation’s sacred temple. At the same time, the Pentagon remains an engine room, generating a current that flows inexorably toward the edge of an abyss. Until, finally, the Pentagon becomes the bull’s-eye of a world target.

Ironies animate this history, as emergency measures designed to be temporary become permanent; as imagined enemies become real by virtue of having been imagined; as arms control initiatives themselves fuel the upward spiral of weapons accumulation; as intellectual brilliance is assigned second place (even by intellectuals) to technical expertise; as peacenik opposition to the draft leads to a professional military of the poor.At times, militarized belligerence defines the State Department more than the Defense Department, with generals embracing the diplomacy their martinet civilian overseers reject. The narrative’s two great reversals come when, first, the most ideological Cold War figure of all finds a way to cooperate with his enemy to end that war, making a friend of the enemy to boot; and then, second, when a selfappointed peacemaker president keeps the Cold War going, even without that enemy. The story’s tragic endpoint arrives like punctuation when a ragtag group of “insurgents” fights the most lavishly armed force in history to a virtual stalemate.

Korea, Berlin, Cuba, Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Korea again; the radioactive standoff with Moscow; the perennial false promise of technology; the U.S. Navy’s war against, first, the U.S. Air Force; the U.S. Army twice carrying out orders for its own self-destruction; and, always, the frontier of space as the next battlefield—such are the markers of this story. It has its heroes: the Cold War leadership on both sides, who found it possible not to start World War III, as well as that legion of the unnamed who nobly fought the “limited” wars that had the unlimited consequence for many of them. There are also heroes among the counterbalancing throng, Gandhi’s children, who demanded an end to those wars, calling time-out from the nuclear high noon.

This history has its villains, too: men who fell under the thrall of new machines, who lost the tie between means and ends, or who refused to acknowledge the limits of American power—and also innocence. These men launched the nation on unnecessary wars. They risked the very earth for a mere idea of it. Seeing threats, they put in place protections that did more damage than the threats ever could have. The spirit of revenge was set loose during World War II, and it found its niche in the American soul, surfacing with power after the September 11 attacks. And so also fear. Leaders who are afraid do terrible things, not least by making their nation afraid. That, too, is what happened here.

* * *

Mostly, though, the Pentagon’s is a story of ordinary people who acted with good intentions, faced tragic dilemmas, and resisted what they saw happening right in front of them. One of those was my father, which makes me the chastened storyteller. I have the eyes of a soldier’s son, through which, unfortunately, I see everything. This book travels a path through a forest of questions, the Pentagon itself a kind of dark woods. A child’s questions have become a man’s.

What happened when the impersonal forces of mass bureaucracy, the Building’s own culture, were joined to the critical mass of nuclear power? What changes in the ethical norms of American military policy unfolded during the Pentagon’s World War II years, during the martial anguish of the Cold War, and during the upward rush toward the ever elusive goal of nuclear dominance? Who were the men of the Pentagon, and how did their moral agency interact with the impersonal momentum of the arms race? How did the constitutional checks and balances in Washington withstand the fierce concentration of power and influence on the Virginia side of the river?

How did the Global War on Terror seize the American psyche so self-destructively? And how, finally, can this usurping center of principality and power be brought back under the control of ordinary citizens, beginning with the disenchanted man who grew from the Pentagon’s invisible boy? To get out from under the weight of such questions—to find his way in the forest, to find his light in the dark, if no longer to find his dad—he is writing this book. It concerns the Building, the bomb, and the battle, still raging, for America.



1. Hell’s Bottom

A year after the Al Qaeda attack, at a rededication ceremony on September 11, 2002, much was made of the post-9/11 repairs having been completed in a mere twelve months. No one seemed to know that the entire Building had been constructed from start to finish in less than sixteen months. It was made of cement for which 700,000 tons of sand were dredged from the Potomac riverbed next to the site. The river’s edge is key to the Building’s impression, evoking a forbidden temple of the timeless past, as if looming over the ancient Nile.1 The picturesque lagoon that sets off the River Entrance, like a plaza waiting to receive the barge of Cleopatra, is a vestige of that dredging.

Relatively little steel was used in the construction — those ramps instead of elevators — because it was needed just then for bullets, shells, and tanks. Planners took for granted that once the war emergency had passed, the hulking edifice would be handed over for civilian use: a depot for government records or — and this is what my mother told me, which is why I always believed it, even after learning it was a myth — a facility for the care of wounded and disabled veterans, the ramps built for wheelchairs and gurneys. The largest hospital in the world.My mother’s devotion to this idea was sacralized when my brother Joe was stricken with polio, making her a haunter of hospitals, a connoisseur of ramps. Joe’s polio, in turn, transformed into worship her devotion to the similarly stricken, but nobly unbowed, President Roosevelt. He was photographed visiting the Building just before its completion in January 1943, but there is no record of his using a wheelchair there. …………………….. In fact, Roosevelt was deeply conflicted about the Pentagon. As assistant secretary of the Navy duringWorldWar I, he had ordered the construction of barracks-like “tempos” all over Washington, and these eyesores were still there twenty years later, despoiling especially the Mall between the LincolnMemorial and theWashingtonMonument. The structures were a source of self-rebuke to Roosevelt. The War Department alone occupied seventeen separate facilities around Washington. To consolidate the offices in one handsome place, FDR had personally overseen the construction of a new headquarters building at 21st Street in Foggy Bottom, but no sooner was it completed than World War II broke out. By mid-1941, the Army had mushroomed to a million and a half men; the new headquarters was instantly inadequate, and senior Army officials told the president they would never use it.3 Though its entrance was decorated by a huge, undiplomatic martialmural — helmeted soldiers in combat — the building would become the headquarters of the State Department, which it remains to this day.

The size of the space was not the only issue. The freshly empowered Army wanted its new building to be set apart from the so-called FederalWest Executive Area, apart from entanglements with, and the limits of, the seat of government. In a time of peril, the Army was not about to be treated as just another bureaucratic function, alongside Interior and Commerce and Indian Affairs. The Army would transcend. Senior military officials immediately began scouting sites outside the city — this despite the explicit terms of congressional appropriations for construction withinWashington.4 A site in Virginia appealed to the Army because, for one thing, District of Columbia architectural supervision would not hinder the mammoth scale envisioned by departmental planners. Yet even across the river the initial site selection proved controversial. The D.C. Fine Arts Commission, chaired by Roosevelt’s cousin Frederick A. Delano, reached across the Potomac to denounce the “flagrant disregard”5 of context in the Army’s wish to build at the western end of Memorial Bridge. The site was then occupied by Arlington Farms, an agricultural research facility — all that was left of Robert E. Lee’s original plantation, the rest of which had long before been seized by the federal government to serve as the national cemetery. Recovering from the punitive impulse of that requisition,Washington had, in the 1920s, established a symbol of reconciliation between North and South by aligning an axis alongMemorial Bridge between Lee’s becolumned mansion atop the hill at Arlington and the Lincoln Memorial, which was completed in 1922. Joined to Lincoln in this way, Lee was thus linked along the Mall to George Washington and the Capitol. The proposed new War Department building, just below the Lee mansion and directly on that axis, would destroy the geographic symbol of national reconciliation.

When that was pointed out to President Roosevelt, he ordered the War Department building moved about a mile downriver. At the same time, considering the architects’ plans for the hulking structure, FDR ordered the size of the building reduced by half. Among other considerations, the president expressed concern for the psychological effect on those who would be employed amid such dominating impersonality.6 He also affirmed that, after “the present emergency,” the War Department headquarters would be returned to Washington where it belonged; no permanent headquarters building would be necessary in Virginia. Roosevelt found himself declaring that the Army could make do, as the Navy would, with yet more tempos. (The Navy Annex was constructed to be temporary, but to this day it sits on the Arlington ridge, above the Pentagon.)When the general in charge of the project objected to these terms, the president said, “My dear General, I’m still Commander-in-Chief of the Army.”7

The general complied, but only partially. The new downriver site was accepted — an unsightly shack-ridden wasteland called Hell’s Bottom. It was a former airfield and railroad yard littered with abandoned tin hangars and rusted-out boxcars. But without Roosevelt’s knowledge, the general declined to reduce the size of the Building, and with the help of Virginia congressmen, he protected the appropriations needed to make the construction permanent. By then the Building’s architects, led by G. Edwin Bergstrom, who had also designed the Hollywood Bowl, had completed drawings for the upriver site at Arlington Farms. The original design for that now abandoned location called for a simple rectangular footprint, but access roads required one corner of the rectangle to be cut off, leaving an asymmetrical five-sided building. What Bergstrom did was to even up the five sides, producing — voilà — the Pentagon. When the site was moved downriver, the polygonal shape was no longer required by the limits of the roadways, but such was the hurried pace of the project that the architects did not change the design. Eventually Bergstrom and others would mythologize the pentagonal form of the War Department headquarters as an echo of Napoleonic-era fortress architecture.8 The true, entirely mundane origin of the design would be forgotten.

Over the next year, more than a hundred architects and nearly as many engineers worked around the clock in those abandoned airplane hangars, turning out drawings for the more than fifteen thousand laborers, who often didn’t wait for specs. Pearl Harbor was attacked almost three months after groundbreaking, and from then on the already quickened pace of construction was redoubled. “How big should I make that beam across the third floor?” one architect asked another, who replied, “I don’t know. They installed it yesterday.”9

*  *  *

Supervising all of this work was a Corps of Engineers colonel named Leslie R. Groves, who was forty-five years old when appointed to head up Pentagon construction. He was a burly, corpulent man whose belly protruded like lips over his brass-buckled belt.10 A man of the job, Groves was an important military manager. In charge of the Army’s crash building program across the country (in 1940 the Corps’s construction budget skyrocketed from $20 million to $10 billion), he had already purchased half the lumber in the United States.11 Born into an Army family four years after the Battle of Wounded Knee, in 1890, which marked the end of the Indian wars, Groves had spent part of his childhood at Fort Apache, Arizona, living in the house of a man famous for killing Indians.12 His lifelong hero was GeneralWilliam Tecumseh Sherman, whose “march to the sea” across Georgia legitimized the spirit of total war, which after the CivilWar was unleashed on Native Americans.

Groves began as a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but when his older brother died in 1914 — of a disease contracted at the same Arlington Farms that would much later be the first site proposed for the Pentagon — Groves transferred toWest Point. From then on he wore a mustache, which did nothing to soften his stern, unfriendly demeanor. Work in the Corps of Engineers was essentially a matter of management, and Groves proved himself again and again. By the time he was put in charge of Pentagon construction, his most notable prior service had been in Nicaragua, developing plans for a second (never undertaken) canal across the Central American isthmus.13

As the Pentagon neared completion, Groves was promoted to brigadier general, although for a reason having to do with his next project, not this one. Among his last decisions in Arlington was one that provided the new Building with separate eating and lavatory accommodations for “colored people” and whites. The dining areas for blacks would be in the basement, and on the other floors, at each corridor junction, double toilet facilities would be built, separated by race.When President Roosevelt visited the Building shortly before its dedication, he asked why there were so many lavatories (more than two hundred), and he was told that the Army was abiding by Virginia’s racial laws. Roosevelt had issued an order prohibiting such discrimination throughout the U.S. military only six months earlier, and he told Groves to get rid of theWhites Only signs at once. Groves obeyed. Because he was overridden by the president, the Pentagon would for a long time be the only place in Virginia where segregation was not allowed.14

Within days of Roosevelt’s visit to the new War Department headquarters, at an understated ceremony presided over by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, the Pentagon was dedicated.Wartime exigencies eclipsed such a formality in the memoirs and memories of witnesses. Honor guards would have mounted battle flags in mahogany stands, and portraits of former secretaries of war would have been unveiled. One imagines the Army band playing martial music. Perhaps a ribbon was cut. It was January 15, 1943.15

2. Unconditional Surrender

The coincidence of dates — September 11 (on that day in 1944, American forces would first arrive at the German border, near Trier); January 15 (on that day in 1944, Allied forces would prepare to land at Anzio) — is precious to human beings because it creates the impression that underlying the randomness of everyday life is an orderly structure. The passage of time is not a mere matter of chance, and even things that seem unrelated are tied together, if not by links of causality, then by meaning. Perhaps instead of coincidence, what we are talking about is convergence, which implies more than the bumping together of dissimilar objects. Technically, convergence defines the movement of a person’s eyes toward each other in order to look more closely at something. Two things become one, and connection itself becomes the point of focus. “Correspondence” is the word given to this sense of double events, how one event illuminates the other, and of course it provides the very architecture of memory — how present experience constantly evokes that of the past, so that the past may be more fully understood, while the present is more vividly brought to life.

In casting an eye — a pair of eyes — back over the terrain of the past, it may help to juxtapose seemingly disparate events, to expose the hidden connections that alone explain their full significance. Attention to such coincidences in time will characterize this work, beginning with an investigation of events that occurred in one week, from the fifteenth to the twenty-second of January. Things that happened across the world within days of the dedication of the new icon of military might on the shore of the Potomac were disparate events except for the way they set in motion currents of thought and deed that would eventually combine in a kind of chain reaction, transforming attitudes, actions, and ultimately the meaning of the Pentagon itself.

Franklin Roosevelt was not present at the dedication, not because he disapproved of it — although, as we have seen, in part he did — but because just then, on the first trip he took by air as president,16 he had flown to Casablanca, Morocco. He was in the midst of an eight-day meeting with Prime Minister Winston Churchill, General Henri Giraud, head of state of French North Africa, and General Charles de Gaulle, chief of the “Fighting French.” Joseph Stalin was not present at this urgent conference of Allied leaders because Soviet armies were just then throwing back the Germans at Leningrad, lifting a seventeen-month siege. At the same time, Stalin’s forces were about to complete the destruction of the whole 300,000-man German army at Stalingrad, where the six-month battle would end on the last day of January. On the eastern front, the days coinciding with the Casablanca conference were the most decisive two weeks of the war, a turning of the tide against the Germans. “There has begun,” Stalin said, “a massive expulsion of the enemy from the Soviet land.”17 Armed now with the initiative, Stalin’s warmaking would be driven as much by revenge as by strategy, and his allies would have to accommodate it.18

At Casablanca, General Dwight Eisenhower was given command of the unified North African forces, and there, too, a tide turned. On January 23, the last day of the conference, the Eighth Army conquered Tripoli. “Rommel is still flying before them,” Churchill declared 19 of the advance that marked the beginning of the rout of General Erwin Rommel, which would ultimately cost the Axis armies a million men captured or killed. In the same days of January, British methods of deciphering German military communications, based on a first-generation computer, were finally proving themselves. “Decrypts” of intercepted radio messages were stamped “Ultra Top Secret,”which led to the name Ultra for the British reading of enemy messages. Because of Ultra, German U-boats could be readily located and Allied shipping rerouted to avoid them, while Allied air power could home in on the submerged vessels. After January 1943, no Allied merchant ship within range of air cover was sunk by a German submarine.20 In 1944, the Ultra team forwarded more than forty thousand decoded German intercepts to Allied field commanders. Ultra, which in time laid bare Hitler’s own orders to his generals,21 would ensure Allied dominance over Germany from this month on.

By January 1943 the war in the Pacific had turned its corner, too. The Japanese, set on an invasion of Australia, had been defeated at the Battle of the Coral Sea the previous spring, an Allied triumph that was quickly followed by the Battle of Midway, where the Japanese lost four aircraft carriers and control of the Pacific. After the American conquest of Guadalcanal in August, one island after another fell as the Japanese began their steady retreat to the home islands. By January there was no longer any prospect of a Japanese recovery. All of these factors together made that month — indeed, that week of Casablanca, that week of the Pentagon — the hinge of the war, as Allied victory became a matter of when rather than if.

* * *

Roosevelt reflected this assurance at Casablanca when, overriding the instincts of Churchill, he insisted on defining the Allied war aim for the first time as the “unconditional surrender” of the Axis. The conference deliberated on the subject, but owing to differences between the president and the prime minister, there was no agreed plan to issue a declaration. Roosevelt spontaneously used the phrase in the postconference press briefing, claiming later that it was unintentional — a reference sparked, he said, by an odd thought that General Ulysses S. Grant had been called “Old Unconditional Surrender” — “. . . and the next thing I knew I had said it.” Churchill recounts this in his memoir, then adds sarcastically, “I do not feel that this frank statement is in any way weakened by the fact that the phrase occurs in the notes from which he spoke.”22

That Roosevelt and Churchill differed on this question may reflect nothing more than a pervasive difference between the New World and the Old, but even in America the tradition was less than absolute. Grant had not insisted on unconditional surrender with Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, accepting, for example, Lee’s condition that his officers could keep their horses.23 In Europe, modern wars had ended through the negotiation of conditions. The Crimean War (1853–1856) was concluded when Russia accepted conditions defined by the Vienna “Four Points.” Before America entered World War I, WoodrowWilson proposed conditions for settlement that he characterized as “peace without victory,” a phrase he first used in a speech to the U.S. Senate on — coincidentally — January 22, 1916.24 But America was not to be the mediator. German U-boats included American shipping in their attacks, bringing the United States into war against Germany on April 2, 1917 (although Washington did not declare war against Austria-Hungary until — coincidentally — December 7, 1917). 25 Yet even with this expansion of hostilities, negotiations aimed at defining conditions for ending the war continued. America’s entry broke the stalemate, eventually forcing Germany to terms. An armistice with Austria-Hungary was agreed to on November 3, 1918, and with Germany on November 8. The conditions of the armistice were harsh, involving Germany’s surrender of territory and of vast amounts of materiel (a long way from Wilson’s “peace without victory”), but they were still conditions. Germany was by no means destroyed by the armistice (the subsequent terms of the Treaty of Versailles, signed the following June, were far harsher, leading to the myth of the “stab in the back”).

What haunted Roosevelt more than twenty years later was that World War I had ended without the permanent destruction of Germany’s capacity to recover as a war-waging nation.26 In calling for unconditional surrender at Casablanca, his stated purpose was to ensure that Germany would not be able to repeat that recovery — or resuscitate the stab-in-the-back myth. Roosevelt rationalized the demand as aiming only at the prevention of a future war with Germany, and, tangentially, with Japan, but, cutting off what might have been a divisive debate in Congress over war goals, it had a domestic impact as well. By sounding a note of unprecedented and even brutal determination, it is also likely that Roosevelt was trying to mollify Stalin, who was increasingly impatient for a British-American invasion of Europe. The Western allies’ nightmare was that the Soviets, throwing back the Germans after Stalingrad, would enter into a separate peace with Berlin, as the new Soviet regime had done in World War I. The unconditional surrender demand was a signal to the Soviet leader that his Western allies were not going to do any such thing themselves.

In any case, the declaration carried grave implications for the war’s duration, the war’s conclusion, and the shape of the conflict that would follow the war. If Churchill opposed Roosevelt on this point, it was not because he was indifferent to shoring up Stalin, nor because he had learned history’s lessons less well than Roosevelt, nor because he was softer — more “Wilsonian” — than his American counterpart. Churchill, after all, had spent the century up to his elbows in the blood of Britain’s imperial wars. That was the experience he was drawing on. Churchill knew that by foreclosing any possible negotiations toward surrender, the Allies were making it more likely that the Axis powers would fight to the bitter end, at a huge cost in lives on both sides, resulting in a level of devastation that would itself be the seedbed of the next catastrophe. This was so because “unconditional surrender” could be taken by an enemy as promising the destruction not just of its armies but of its whole society. Indeed, Joseph Goebbels would tell Germans that this demand issued at Casablanca meant the Allies were set on making slaves of their entire nation.27 To put such dread in the breast of an enemy population was to make inevitable a fight to the death — or, as Churchill had put it about his own people earlier in the war, when they faced the prospect of conquest by an ascendant Germany, a fight “on the beaches.” Knowing of his own ferocious readiness to resist to the last breath, the last ounce of blood, Churchill might have cited Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese theorist of war, who wrote, “When you surround an army leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.”28

“Unconditional surrender” meant that the enemy would have no reason to mitigate the ferocity of its resistance. It was an invitation to the Germans and the Japanese, as their likely defeat came closer, to fight back without restraint, preferring to take their chances even with the brutally immoral tactics of a last stand rather than to accept defeat at the hands of an enemy refusing to offer any terms whatsoever.

Roosevelt’s demand for unconditional surrender immediately deprived secretly alienated members of the German high command of the main motive to overthrow the increasingly irrational Hitler. Because such a move could no longer be linked to a hope for some concession from the Allies, the assassination conspiracy that was already brewing among Hitler’s staff — and within a few weeks would make its first attempt on Hitler’s life — remained marginal and ultimately unsuccessful.29 In other words, one obvious “condition” on which German leaders might well have sought an end to the war was the removal of Hitler. The Casablanca declaration helped protect the Führer from the rational and pragmatic element among his own staff. It reinforced the fanatics.

And it may have reinforced them in their most maniacal enterprise. “Unconditional surrender” meant that the Allies, aiming only at the complete and final destruction of the Nazi war machine, were not in a position to mitigate the Final Solution. Even if Roosevelt and Churchill at that point did not know the full horror of the genocide, they knew by the time of Casablanca that the systematic and industrialized murder of Jews was under way.30 They knew, in other words, that Germany, under Hitler, was embarked on an extraordinary barbarity. For the remainder of the war, Roosevelt and other leaders insisted that the best rescue of Jews was the quick and complete defeat of the German military, but from “unconditional surrender” forward, that was, in fact, the only real option the Allies had.

It is not necessary to believe that Hitler would have softened his treatment of Jews had the Allies been willing to negotiate, nor to believe that an end to the genocide would have been a primary Allied demand in such negotiations, in order to grasp that the extremities of the war’s denouement and the delay of the war’s end enabled the Nazi death machine to do its worst. The policy of unconditional surrender, that is, guaranteed that the war would last long enough for the genocide nearly to succeed. The last savage months of war in Europe saw the deaths of millions of people, not merely the defeat of the Nazi war machine. In the end, there was a technical German surrender, by the military command after Hitler’s suicide, but “surrender,” unconditional or not, misses the point of what happened. Germany was simply destroyed, and with it much of Europe.

Ironically, Roosevelt would learn at Tehran, ten months after Casablanca, that Stalin, whom he hoped to encourage with the demand of unconditional surrender, was completely opposed to it. Even the harshest conditions, Stalin argued — and if he did not aim to enslave the German population, he certainly aimed to impoverish them — would bring about a settlement far sooner than none at all.31 Stalin’s army, imposing itself “unconditionally” on Germany from the east in the war’s last months, would lose a million more men.

* * *

What is to be made of such horrors? In fact, there is an entire intellectual discipline devoted to parsing them. The war theorist Thomas Schelling has observed that “pain and shock, loss and grief, privation and horror are always in some terrible degree among the results of warfare, but in traditional military science they are incidental, they are not the object.”32 But “traditional military science” averts its eyes from the harshest fact of war — that it includes a savage momentum operating apart from the intentions of the warriors. In the modern age, that momentum is compounded by technology, when killing becomes both more efficient and more impersonal. When the distance between attacker and victim increases, the psychological effects of battle can become less restrained. Momentum and technology together erode the moralities of the battlefield, even as persons far from the killing continue to expound them. All of this, in addition to rational strategies, is built into the impulse to demand unconditional surrender.

Practical experience of war, winning or losing, trumps war room strategy. In the death struggle, winners and losers together enter a realm defined precisely by “pain and shock, loss and grief, privation and horror” as main objects, instead of as incidentals. This explains the “shrieking public enthusiasm”33 with which the American populace picked up the cry of unconditional surrender. They, too, had entered the mortal zone.

January 1943 did not signify the moment of Allied victory, but it was clearly the first time — after Midway, Tripoli, and Stalingrad — that Allied leaders could confidently look forward to victory. A demand of unconditional surrender would otherwise have been absurd. The demand can be taken as a marker, therefore, of a shift in the Allied experience of the momentum of war — movement, in effect, toward a spirit of no quarter, no compromise, no stopping short of complete devastation. The death zone had been entered. In this sense, for Roosevelt, and perhaps for the others at Casablanca, that hinge week in January was the extreme boundary, the leaders’ version of being at the front, the emergence at last from the fog of war into clarity, energy, and license.

“Unconditional surrender” is the signal of all this. Roosevelt had his rationale — putting the enemy on notice that they had lost — but a dreadful irrationality was at work, too. The demand suggests that the war’s momentum had had its way with the war’s great leader.While it is necessary to acknowledge among warriors the universal “totality” of the urge to kill at a certain point in combat, it is also important to note, as we have, that statesmen ordinarily avoid overt expressions of such extremity. But Roosevelt did not avoid it. His declaration of unconditional surrender, coming after Allied and Axis forces had been brutally at each other for two years, clearly implied an escalation of threat — a threat of violence carried to an extreme that would be limited, not by any restraint on the part of the Allies, but only by the abject and impotent surrender of the Axis nations.

“Unconditional surrender” was thus a threat of total war, a readiness to embark, if a stubborn enemy so invited it, on a program of total destruction. But destruction of what? The Axis armies? The Axis leadership? Or the entire Axis nations? Could the enemy expect, as Joseph Goebbels warned the Germans to expect, a horde of marauding invaders come to obliterate their society — this war ending as the infamous wars of old had? Children stolen, women turned into sex slaves, men cut to pieces, livestock left to rot.34 In the Middle Ages, Christians distinguished between bellum hostile, which was war waged among Christians and according to the rules of chivalry, and bellum Romanum, which was war without regulation, the sort waged against infidels.35 If the enemy could be defined as radically evil, then the restraints of morality did not apply.

The totality of destruction that was being threatened against the radically evil Axis powers at Casablanca was not specified, and it seems unlikely that Roosevelt consciously defined it for himself — although one wonders whether he would have had to if the far more ruthless Stalin had been present at the conference. The totality of destruction of which the Allied forces were just then becoming capable was probably not clear to Roosevelt either. Indeed, as we shall see shortly, two technological revolutions were even then redefining the meaning of “totality.” This time, because of those technologies, the momentum of war unleashed by both the rhetoric and the decisions of Casablanca would be accelerated in ways no one could have imagined. The point is that Roosevelt’s declaration, whether or not it marked an unconscious shift toward the pure, vengeful violence of a latent victor, prepared the way for such total violence, wreaked as always by war’s own impersonal logic, but also by diabolical human inventiveness as never before.

Technology was about to force the old question: Should the violence of warfare be restricted to military forces, or can it extend to civilian populations? The time was long past when war was an enterprise of feudal elites, monarchs or mercenaries, exempting the peasantry and burgher class except as prizes. Since the rise of popular nationalist wars, beginning with Napoleon, and especially once societies were industrialized, entire nations were routinely mobilized as the source of warmaking power. In the new era, the labor of the whole nation, and its esprit, became crucial elements of national belligerence. The distinction between civilians and soldiers, that is, had been qualitatively different — far easier to maintain — in agrarian societies, where men of the hoe could ignore the battles raging on the hill between men of the horse. Even so, that distinction, in the commitments of statesmen on all sides, still held.

World War I was mainly a war of army against army. Indeed, so was the Civil War in the United States, with the notable exception of Sherman’s march to the sea.36 Sherman embodied the movement from violence for the sake of defeating an army’s war-waging ability to violence for the sake of terrorizing a population on which the army depends and for which it fights. By authorizing the berserking of his own forces, setting them loose on civilians, Sherman found a way to turn what had always before been the purposeless violence of pillage and rampage into