Americans have long viewed as necessary to the survival of the United States an absolute protection from foreign attack. That was one of the reasons that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was so troubling to the American psyche. This has prompted a never-ending search for security, and a corresponding search for a superweapon that would so demoralize an enemy that it would never attack the United States. From Robert Fulton’s Revolutionary War era submarine to such recent developments as Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the United States has spared no expense and no measure of effort to ensure its safety.
Bruce Franklin is a cultural historian, not a military of a policy analyst, so don’t look for reasoned discussion of the present-day implications of this quest for security. What he does do, however, is write a compelling cultural history of this aspect of America, demonstrating effectively how the U.S. has pursued the ultimate defensive weapon, one that would ensure that no one would ever want to attack this nation because of the dire consequences.
I am most familiar with this story in relation to aerospace history, and indeed that is a major part of the story in the twentieth century. Indeed the airplane was supposed to make the nation invincible because no one would accept the dire losses that would result from any conflict. It would make war, in the words of many aviation enthusiasts, obsolete. Guess what, it didn’t. There is considerable literature, film, art, and the like that spoke to that belief.
We have seen the same in the context of nuclear weapons, and their delivery methods by both airplanes and missiles, as something too terrible to contemplate. Cultural outpourings attest to American reactions to this situation in the era since World War II. Franklin is at his best in analyzing film—such as Fail-Safe, On the Beach, and Dr. Strangelove—that called attention to the disparity between the imagined future of the technocrats and the horrors of what might befall humanity. Of course, those might be viewed as “fifth column” efforts to weaken American resolve and strength, and in the 1950s the McCarthy “Red Scare” had elements of this as part of the agenda. Those clamoring for those superweapons, however, always viewed them as way to end all war and ensure the triumph to the American way of life.
Central to this, especially in the post-World War II era, was the nuclear weapons delivered through the modern technology of ballistic missiles. Accordingly, for the first time in human history people hundreds or even thousands of miles removed from the battlefield were now living life as a target. This had a profound impact on American culture as everyone now lived on the receiving end of an attack from space. Franklin explores the manner in which society has dealt with the rising threat of attack from above over time. Thinking about the unthinkable became a central aspect of Franklin’s discussion of the super weapon. It changed not only the dynamic of international relations and cast a long shadow over every confrontation between first-world nations in the post-1945 era, but it also transformed American culture.
Franklin published the first edition of this book in 1988, before the collapse of the Soviet Union. It received good reviews at the time, but the position of the champions of the superweapon in American culture found the greatest evidence of their belief with SDI and the Soviet collapse. Ronald Reagan, it seems, had won the Cold War after 40 years of stalemate. SDI and other military measures, in their minds, bankrupted the Soviet Union, despite the reality of many internal reasons ranging from economic crisis to imperial overstretch to the incursion of knowledge that a better future might be achieved by pursuing a different political agenda more in synchronicity with rather than in tension with the West. Indeed, it may be that Reagan’s most important role in helping to end the Cold War may have had nothing to do with the pursuit of a superweapon. Instead he was astute in allowing the internal situation in the Soviet Union to play out and was helpful by working with Gorbachev on arms control and the reduction of nuclear weapons.
A new edition of WarStars was published in 2008. This is the version of the book that I read. It is a solid work, exploring the cultural history of the search for security by emphasizing “peace through strength.” It is an important study, worthy of anyone’s consideration.