The Vietnam War, “ in its essence,” was “the national security experts’ war.” That’s journalist and lawyer Scott Horton’s interpretation in a nutshell in Lords of Secrecy: The National Security Elite and America’s Stealth Warfare (NationBooks, 272 pp., $26.99). This is Horton’s book-length take on how—as his subtitle indicates—the nation’s “national security elite” came to dominate the nation’s war policy-making starting with the Vietnam War.
Who exactly are these elite experts? Horton describes them as “military and intelligence professionals, as well as scientists and other academics skilled in international relations theory and area studies.” In other words: “think tanks, academics, and the cream of the government’s national security intelligentsia.”
This situation began, Horton says, under the Kennedy administration and flourished under the Johnson and Nixon presidencies. This is not a good thing, Horton says, mainly because much of this behind-the-scenes war policy-making takes place in secret: a “striking departure from prior American wars.” The main problem is that largely secret policy making means there is “no meaningful public debate.” That leaves Congress and the American people more or less on the sidelines in planning the nation’s war-making decisions.
Horton names names—among them the disgraced former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and JFK and LBJ National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy—in this indictment of what he calls “the secret stewards of American security” and their undue influence on war-making.
The bulk of this readable book looks at the twenty-first century ramifications of what began during the Vietnam War. That includes the planning for (and execution of) the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as U.S. military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Pakistan.
One of the less desirable aspects of the all this secret policy-making, Horton says, has been the increasing use of private security contractors in our recent wars—and all that that entails. He also expresses strong reservations about the widespread use of surveillance by a raft of federal intelligence agencies and the increasing use of drones and other non-human military weapons.