The Top Table and the Think Tank
It was a meeting of five men and a woman. The men were all middle-aged. They were extremely anxious not to make a mistake. The woman was also middle-aged, and at least as determined not to make a mistake. She was a stenographer. They comprised the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the military high command of the United States.
It was somewhat ironic that, in a gathering of people capable of deploying such power, it was only the stenographer, Mrs. Eloise Suggs, who didn't feel that she was negotiating from weakness.
At the foot of the table, opposite Mrs. Suggs and only a few inches closer than she to the chairman, was General Randolph McC. Pate, the commandant of the marine corps. His problem was that he had less right than Mrs. Suggs to be there at all. The marine commandant, leader of the smallest of the four services, wasn't originally included in the JCS, being called in only when matters pertaining to the corps were under discussion. Things had been liberalized since then, over the objections of a former army chief of staff who wondered out loud whether the Coast Guard would be invited next. The marine member tended to speak only when spoken to, which wasn't often.
Next up from General Pate, at a distance great enough to indicate class difference but close enough to acknowledge the common origin of the navy and marines, there was the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Arleigh Burke. He was a big good- looking Irishman who had every right to be there, and was well aware of it. But his personal confidence still wasn't enough to overcome a certain structural disadvantage of the navy relative to the air force.
Although the navy had the historic role as the country's first defender, that had changed with air power. It was now possible to be destroyed without being invaded, and the air force was much better positioned to resist the most dangerous attacks.
To make matters worse, the navy's offensive role had also been seriously questioned. With the introduction of the B-36, the air force claimed that the prediction General Billy Mitchell had made thirty years previously had come true. The range of aircraft had increased to the point where aircraft carriers were obsolete anachronisms.
The navy, built primarily around carriers, had screamed piercingly as it appealed to the many congressmen who had naval employment in their districts. The carriers hadn't been scrapped, and they could still launch nuclear strikes at the enemy. But, still, their strategic offensive role was now only a secondary one. Admiral Burke had hopes of changing that with submarines, but the required technology didn't yet exist.
Across from Admiral Burke and General Pate, and dangerously near Mrs. Suggs, was the chief of staff of the army, General Maxwell Taylor. A man of youthful appearance and high energy who had risen rapidly in the second world war to reach high command in Korea, General Taylor was the sort of military intellectual who is as comfortable with a pen as with an armored division. His disadvantage also had nothing to do with himself. It was just that it was damned hard to imagine anything the army could do in a nuclear exchange.
And then, after the exchange, there would be so little left of the army that it was damned hard to think of anything it would still be capable of doing - or, for that matter, of anything that would still be worth doing. The army didn't wish to be relegated to conducting pre-exchange police actions, particularly ones like the Korean War, but even General Taylor found it challenging to try to find something better.
On Taylor's left, between himself and the chairman, was the chief of staff of the air force, General Nathan Twining. Many would have said that he had no negotiating disadvantage. It was really only the air force which could defeat Russia, and General Twining was a man who spoke breezily about dropping nuclear bombs here, there, and yon. He was, indeed, more likely than any of the others to recommend massive nuclear retaliation against the Soviets and/or the Chinese for actions they might undertake.
Twining's problem was a personal one. He was overshadowed, both in bellicosity and in general reputation for efficiency and ability, by one of his own subordinates, General Curtis LeMay. When one came down to it, it wasn't the air force as such, but LeMay's Strategic Air Command, which could defeat the Soviets. Moreover, LeMay's personality was so dominant, and he inspired so much loyalty, that the man in Twining's seat couldn't have the confidence of his own service without having that of General LeMay. There was sometimes a suspicion that Twining was bellicose because LeMay was bellicose.
The chairman at the head of the table was a quite different and far more complex man, Admiral Arthur Radford. A former naval aviator who, in civilian dress, looked like a crooked lawyer, he might have been almost as smart as Maxwell Taylor. But his intelligence, if such it was, was of a much less open and more sinister kind.
It surprised no one that Admiral Radford had reached the pinnacle of military power through political rather than service connections. That alone would have made him suspect in all the services, but there was something else.
Improbable as it might seem, there was a close, and probably unprecedented, relation between the JCS chairman and the secretary of state. John Foster Dulles, that other disturbing figure of the Eisenhower administration, was moralistic and churchy where Radford was secretive and tricky, but there was something, perhaps a common love of intrigue, that bound them together.
Many people believed that Radford and Dulles had their own quasi-secret agenda, one whose disclosure might surprise even President Eisenhower.
Admiral Radford was well aware that no one in the group trusted him very far. That might not have constituted the same sort of negotiating disadvantage as the ones faced by his colleagues, but it still complicated matters. Whenever the admiral introduced a topic for discussion and decision, his manner was rather like that of the stage magician who goes to elaborate lengths to display all his empty pockets before he pulls a rabbit out of one of them.
The present discussion concerned the selection of enemy targets for American nuclear weapons. None of this had much to do with the previous day's alert, or with any that might occur in the next week, month, or even year. The SAC bombers all had their targets, but the JCS looked ahead some distance in time, even a decade or two. It was assumed that, somewhere in that period, the United States would have inter- continental ballistic missiles, and also shorter range missiles that could be launched from submarines. Even the army would have tactical nukes with a modest range. The question, in essence, was which services would make the target selections, and, if there were more than one, who would co-ordinate the plans.
In the ordinary run of things, each service would plan the use of whatever offensive missiles it possessed, including target selection. There might then be some rather loose inter-service attempts to co-ordinate plans, and a few compromises might be made. And that would be the end of the matter.
It was in cases like this that it mattered that the president had been a general whose military reputation eclipsed those of all the members of the JCS. That president had decreed that strategic target selection in the future, with whatever weapons might be available, would be absolutely unified under the control of a single officer. Now in his second term, and tired and frazzled enough not to keep a very close rein on Radford and Dulles, the former general was still capable of asserting himself when he felt strongly. He was the last man to want to destroy half the world, but he insisted absolutely that, if it ever came down to it, the response must be perfectly planned and co-ordinated to assure the total destruction of the enemy.
That objective could be accomplished simply by leaving it all to LeMay. But the army and navy would never accept such an arrangement. Admiral Radford, as a naval officer, would normally have opposed it himself. But, of course, he was a special case, perhaps the only man of his rank in the whole military establishment who couldn't be trusted to go straight down the line for his own service. On this occasion, Radford introduced for discussion the question of whether major cities were, of necessity, military targets.
Mrs. Suggs knew immediately that something was wrong. In service politics it often mattered not what decisions were made, but who made them. Moreover, she was almost certain that the admiral agreed with LeMay in his view that any city of any size was bound to be at least a rail center, and hence a legitimate target for nuclear attack. It was only after the discussion began that she saw what was happening. Taylor wanted not to nuke Moscow, and still less Warsaw and Prague. Burke wanted to get them all.
It was another case of Radford trying to stimulate disagreement between the army and the navy so that he would himself have more room for maneuver. In particular, Burke would always take such an extreme position that Radford could back off it only slightly and claim to have struck a compromise between Taylor and Burke. Mrs. Suggs wondered why a man as smart as Taylor hadn't caught on. If he wasn't careful, he'd all have his decisions made for him by LeMay and Radford, the latter posing as the great mediator in inter-service rivalries.
In addition to the discussions, recorded only by Mrs. Suggs, that took place at the highest levels in the pentagon, DRI conducted seminars on the same range of topics. These were also secret, but any staff member was welcome, and they sometimes ran to as many as eighty people. In his first week on the job Tom Williams was taken to one by Bruce Hammond. Like the JCS discussion, it concerned the targetting of nuclear weapons, but there was a difference. Since the people at DRI were ultimately making recommendations rather than decisions, they could proceed with much less inhibition, and they didn't have to first negotiate the ground rules for having a discussion before embarking on the discussion itself. Coming in late, Bruce and Tom heard a man say,
"If there's a Blue counter-strike against Red elements in Poland and Czecho, the civilian casualties will give Red an excellent opportunity for propaganda."
Someone else replied,
"If those counter-strikes are non-nuclear, it shouldn't be bad. We should be able to assume that civilians will have enough sense to keep away from air bases."
It seemed that, wherever possible, people spoke, not of Russia and America, but of Red and Blue. It hardly had a security function, since they all had top secret clearance, but it seemed to make them feel better.
The tone of the debate was partly academic. It often became abstract and general, not to say confusing and confused. On the other hand, the presence of a number of high-ranking officers, some in uniform, suggested something else. They might be playing at being professors, but they at least knew people who ordered aircraft off the ground and sent ships to sea.
A third man then joined the debate. He was mid-thirtyish and somewhat contemptuous in manner. With the air of one raising a basic question the others had overlooked, he said,
"Forget the civilians. What's our position on attacking the Polish army? It's allied to Red, but it's constituted by the conscripted citizens of a captive nation, one we claim we want to liberate."
The second man, who might have been a retired general, replied,
"We won't attack the Polish army unless it attacks us."
"In the context of a nuclear first strike by Red, it'll have no role to play. Will that make it immune from attack?"
The discussion then got rather diffuse, and there never was a clear answer to the question. One of the few women present eventually said,
"What difference does it make who has the propaganda advantage after a nuclear exchange has taken place?"
She spoke as if her question was rhetorical, but she was answered by an admiral in uniform who spoke rather gently,
"At the beginning of a war, it always seems that way. But the war always changes things less than people expect. At the end, propaganda advantages do still make a difference."
Tom was sitting near the woman. She said nothing in reply, but he could see that she wasn't happy. It might have been the admiral's rather paternal tone, or it might have been his apparent assumption that war is normal, and that nuclear weapons were just the latest in a long line of new-fangled inventions. It turned out that there were other people, both military and civilian who shared that attitude. Later on, someone said,
"Nuclear weapons will make a profound difference to the conduct of warfare. Of course they will. But so did the machine gun. It favored defense over offense. The new weapons may well have the opposite effect."
There was no doubt that, for a good many of these people, nuclear weapons were things that could alter the balance between offense and defense. They were quite comfortable with warfare in any form, and were mainly curious to see how the next war would turn out. The woman who had spoken earlier tried to say something at this point, but she was interrupted and effectively silenced.
Tom himself became increasingly comfortable as the discussion went on, eventually raising his hand and making some points. He hardly felt that they were earth-shaking, but the rest of the debate had gone downhill, and the group seemed ready for a fresh young voice, perhaps even a brash one. One man who seemed particularly impressed was the one who had asked about attacking the Polish army. A short, rather intense, discussion ensued, and, when it flagged, Bruce whispered to Tom,
"That's Aaron Goldstein. He's an astrophysicist from Harvard, and he's one of the leading lights in DRI."
Bruce had to get right home when the meeting ended, and it was Goldstein who introduced himself to Tom and invited him out for a beer. It turned out that they were to meet Goldstein's wife, who worked for the Icelandic embassy, at a little place in Chevy Chase.
Tom was always excited at the prospect of meeting a woman, even a married one in the presence of her husband. He assumed that any civilized unmarried woman would, not only be a virgin, but would never have allowed any man to do more than kiss her enthusiastically. The notion of a married woman, while rather unexciting to most of his peers, was fascinating to him because he would know that she had gone "all the way."
Ellie Goldstein wasn't really pretty, nor was she traditionally feminine. But, despite her angularity and sharp edges, there was a certain gracefulness about her. She was also beautifully dressed, probably because she was on the edge of the diplomatic world. Tom particularly liked the cool smoothness of her voice as she said to him,
"It's good to see that DRI has finally hired a young person."
He decided that he liked Ellie's slim straight figure, and tried to work out, as was his wont, how her dress unfastened. He also examined her closely to see what she might have on underneath.
Both Goldsteins probed quickly and deeply into Tom's academic background and his philosophical views. He was a sort of Berkeleyan without God, a view that seemed acceptable to Goldstein. He remarked equably,
"Only idiots believe in God."
That surprised Tom. While an atheist, he knew that some of the most intelligent people in history, including both of the simultaneous inventors of the calculus, had had gods. He half-heartedly advanced a couple of arguments for the existence of God, but Goldstein destroyed them easily.
The Goldsteins had both started out in physics, and they were pleased to find that Tom knew a good deal more science than might have been expected of a philosophy graduate student. At one point, Goldstein remarked to his wife,
"See. I told you he was intelligent."
Having been with them the whole time, without even a visit to the men's room, Tom wondered how Goldstein could have told his wife anything at all about him without his knowledge. It then occurred to him that they might use non-verbal signals to indicate intelligence, or the lack of it, in a third party. It did seem that neither cared much about anything else.
Unlike most people in Tom's experience who valued intelligence in quite that way, Goldstein had an excellent sense of humor. He could be funny, not only about his co- workers, but about things in general. While his humor was always a little too sharp to be good humored, it was somewhat disarming. He laughed, and Ellie laughed. It was impossible not to laugh with them.
It wasn't long before Goldstein gave his assessment of each of Tom's colleagues in Complab. He began with the director, Sam Harris.
"He's unimaginative, but competent."
Goldstein then said to Ellie,
"He's the one with the hole in his head."
It was literally true. Harris had an indentation in his forehead which wasn't large enough to be disfiguring, but which anyone, meeting him for the first time, would notice. Tom asked,
"Did he get it in the war?"
"I don't think so. A bullet there would've killed him."
"When I met him, I wondered if the obstetrician might have used forceps when he was born and squeezed a little too hard."
"Sibling rivalry, more likely. A hard thrust at the eye with some sort of metal rod that missed and got him in the forehead. Perhaps it was an older sister who told him he'd get it in the balls the next time if he didn't behave. He's probably behaved ever since. He's certainly obediant to authority.
Ellie said to Tom,
"It's probably a good thing we don't have children. Goldstein would think them defective if they didn't want to kill each other."
Tom had never heard a wife refer to her husband in quite that way, but there was no hint of bitterness in it. It seemed quite possible that Ellie didn't want children herself.
The rest of Complab was then discussed. One was stupid, one was a fool in addition to being stupid, another was an idiot, and another a hopeless idiot. The ones Goldstein thought well of tended to be the younger ones, who were about ten years older than Tom.
As they talked, Tom glanced from Ellie's thin white face, rectangularly framed by her straight black hair, to Goldstein's mouth, twisting as he alternately libelled and joked, and back to Ellie's shoulders. He could just make out two sets of straps beneath the silky pale gray fabric of her dress, and that gave him at least part of the data he needed to imagine the elaborate strip-tease she would perform for Goldstein the minute they got home. Having no first-hand, or even second-hand, experience of sexual intercourse, his fantasies always fogged out for lack of detail when he attempted to push them too far.
On the other hand, Tom did know something about the behavior of people in organizations, and the ways in which they sought to solidify their positions. By the time that they left the Happy Hour Cafe, he knew that he was being invited to join Goldstein's club at DRI. It was obviously an exclusive one, and he was flattered. Moreover, in view of the scary nature of the work, membership in any sort of group seemed rather attractive.
The next morning, Sam Harris stopped Tom in the corridor and said,
"I wasn't at the meeting yesterday, but you evidently made a good impression on the director, Mac Hollins. He just called to ask about you. I had to tell him that, at this point, he probably knows more about you than I do."
They both laughed, and Tom replied,
"I didn't even realize he was there. What does he look like?"
Sam gave a description that would have fitted almost any middle-aged man, and congratulated Tom on this success before returning to his office.
Tom concluded that it must have been his brief debate with Goldstein which had impressed the director. It was apparently believed that anyone who could hold his own with Goldstein was pretty good.
A little later, as he went down the corridor, a strikingly attractive blonde woman, one of the computer operators, touched him lightly on his arm and said,
"Tom, I think there might be a little free time on the machine tomorrow about quarter to ten if you can have a program ready to run."
"Sure. I've got a couple that I'd like to try. But no one's suggested that I actually run one on the machine."
"Well, there are two men from another group who have an hour that they might not use up."
"I thought everyone always used all their time."
"One of these men is a captain in the navy and the other's a physicist. They haven't quite sorted out who's smarter, and that gets in the way when they run into a crisis with their program. Particularly since neither one is much of a programmer. Last time, I acted as if they were both geniuses, exactly equal in intelligence, and that helped."
"But you might not try as hard this time?"
"If I solved some of their problems for them, they might both quit in disgust. You could be waiting right around the corner.
"I'll be there. In fact, I'll punch one on to paper tape right now."
"I'll make sure you do it right."
Sidney Mainwaring was the first really southern woman that Tom had known, and, even though he knew that she was happily married, he certainly liked the attention she seemed inclined to give him. One of the older men, speaking of Sid, had said to him,
"There's no reason not to enjoy her little flirtations, Tom. They do no harm, but they certainly make it easier to come to work in the morning."
As they punched the tape, Sid was inclined to talk. Tom told her what had happened with the director, and she responded enthusiastically. He then asked her what Hollins was like. She replied,
"The girls who work in his office say he's cuddly."
Sid smiled a little satirically as she said it, and Tom asked,
"Does that mean that he cuddles them?"
"No, he doesn't have that sort of reputation. But he does look rather teddy-bearish with his pipe and little paunch. No one's afraid of being fired when he asks them to drop in to talk with him, or anything like that. It's a good thing they made him director, and not one of the nasty arrogant people that there are here."
"I met another man yesterday, one that might be perceived as arrogant. His name is Goldstein."
"Wow! He's right upstairs in the neighboring group, and I'm sometimes his operator. He's fun and interesting. But he's evil. He's the worst possible influence on a young man like you."
Sid smiled, but the smile came a fraction of a second after the statement. It seemed to Tom that the joking factor amounted to no more than twenty per cent of the whole. Then, before he could quiz her further, she gave him another of her little touches on the arm and disappeared.
As it happened, Goldstein came by Tom's office a little later and took him out to lunch. Goldstein was both fun and full of malice. When Tom had his mouth full of soup, he said,
"The director, Mac Hollins, asked Sam Harris if you were Jewish."
"That's funny. I've always had Jewish friends, but I can't recall anyone's thinking I was Jewish."
"Hollins thinks any bright young man is likely to be a Jew. So that's a compliment of a sort. He's also an extreme anti- Semite. He gets very edgy when I'm in the same room with him."
Coming from the academic world, which had seemingly banished such things as anti-Semitism to outer space, or at least to the most benighted sectors of society, Tom was quite shocked. Goldstein was amused by his reaction and replied,
"I don't mind anti-Semitism particularly. In fact, it gives me a lever. I can get anything I want out of Hollins because, one, he wants me to go away quickly, and, two, he knows that a case could be made against him if he can't show that he's treated Jews at least as well as everyone else."
It had never occurred to Tom that there might be advantages in being a member of an oppressed minority group. Just as he was dealing with that idea, Goldstein said,
"Anyway, he's not nearly as stupid as most historians, perhaps not stupid at all."
That was fairly high praise from Goldstein. As they returned from lunch, Tom indulged himself in several fantasies in which the favor he had found with the director was magnified. While he had never thought of himself as being narrowly ambitious, and didn't think that others thought that of him, the result, in each fantasy, was rapid promotion for himself.