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House of War: James Carroll on the Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power

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We speak with James Carroll–one of Boston’s best-known writers–about his new book, “House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power.” In it, Carroll examines the growth of the military industrial complex since World War II and his personal connection to the Pentagon. [includes rush transcript]

We speak with James Carroll, one of Boston’s best known writers. A decade ago he won the National Book Award for his memoir “An American Requiem: God, My Father and the War that Came between Us.” He is also a prize-winning columnist for the Boston Globe.

He has just published a new book titled “House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power.”

In the book Carroll examines the growth of the military industrial complex since World War II and his personal connection to the Pentagon.

He grew up in a military family. His father was a three-star general and the first director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He oversaw the agency throughout much of the Vietnam War.

But Carroll took a different path becoming a vocal opponent of the War and a writer.

For the past six years he has been researching the history of the Pentagon and what he calls the “disastrous rise of American power.”

  • James Carroll, best-selling author and columnist at the Boston Globe. In 1996 he won the National Book Award for his memoir An American Requiem. His latest book is titled “House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power.” Before becoming a writer, Carroll was a Catholic priest.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: James Carroll joins us now in our studio in Boston. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

JAMES CARROLL: Thank you, Amy. Good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. You begin the book by talking about the actual physical building of the Pentagon that you grew up in as a child.

JAMES CARROLL: My dad used to take me there on Saturdays. I remember the thrill it was to take my shoes off and slide down the big, broad ramps in my stocking feet. There was a way in which it was the first — it was the first place I actually experienced away from home as something monumental, belonging to me, and the truth is I remembered that early feeling for the place on 9/11 when it was hit. I was shocked by the grief I felt. The grief America felt mostly focused on the World Trade Center. In my case, it was surprisingly focused on the Pentagon.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the history of the building?

JAMES CARROLL: I begin this work looking at the week it was dedicated, a week in January 1943. Four things that happened that week generating a momentum that we’re still at the mercy of, I argue. One, at Casablanca, Franklin Roosevelt, really against the wishes of his partner, Winston Churchill, announced a new policy of unconditional surrender, the Axis powers had to unconditionally surrender to the Allies, a position that really would have disastrous consequences, especially in Japan in the late months of the war.

The second thing that happened that week was Los Alamos really was up and running — began to be up and running. The Manhattan Project had been initiated the previous autumn, but it really began right then.

The third thing that happened that week, Churchill and Roosevelt together agreed on a joint bomber offensive between the R.A.F. and the Army air forces of the United States. It was the beginning of the American embrace of strategic bombing as a mode of war. The first bombing attack by the Americans against a German city took place two weeks later.

So, strategic bombing, nuclear weapons, a spirit of total war embodied in unconditional surrender, all joined to the other thing that happened that week: the beginning of the building, this mass bureaucracy, which itself then would take on a kind of life that was beyond the ability of any one person or group of persons to check it. And the momentum that began that week really has flowed on essentially unchecked ever since, right through to the present catastrophe in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the “disastrous rise” of American power. Talk about the trajectory from then to now.

JAMES CARROLL: Well, “disastrous rise” is a phrase — it’s a polemical phrase, I acknowledge that. It’s a phrase, though, that I get from Eisenhower in his famous military-industrial complex speech. He was, of course, talking about the military-industrial-political-academic-economic complex, labor, all of the great pillars of American life were recruited into, conscripted, you could say, into the power of this military machine centered in the Pentagon.

At the crucial turning points of American history since World War II, again and again decisions have been made all too easily in favor of war and against creating structures of peace. It happened at the end of the war with the decision, the unnecessary decision to use the atomic bomb. It happened immediately after the war with the unnecessary militarization of the contest with the Soviet Union and so forth. At each of these crucial points, America misperceived the world and made decisions to protect against a threat that was more imagined than real.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you feel it wasn’t necessary to drop the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

JAMES CARROLL: Well, obviously, it’s a complicated question about which historians are still in argument. My conclusion is that the issue of unconditional surrender was the blinder that prevented American leaders at that crucial moment of fully taking in the messages they were getting from Japan.

Japan was all but defeated in the spring of 1945. We had savaged 60 Japanese cities with firebombing. There were signals from the Japanese that they wanted to surrender, and we were willfully blocked in taking those signals in, especially under the leadership of Secretary of State Burns, and the irony is that we re-asserted our demand for unconditional surrender at the crucial point, the Potsdam Declaration at the end of July, yet again saying “unconditional surrender.” All the Japanese wanted by then was assurances about the emperor, which we refused to give them.

When the Japanese did surrender after Nagasaki, they still didn’t surrender unconditionally. They included a condition about the emperor, which at that point we accepted. My conclusion is: If we had accepted the condition on the emperor — the emperor was a divine being to the Japanese. They couldn’t tolerate the thought that what happened to Mussolini and Hitler would happen to him. If we had accepted that condition ahead of the atomic bombings, there would have been no need for those bombings. That’s the conclusion I came to.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to James Carroll. He is the author of House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power. James, you talk about other September 11ths.

JAMES CARROLL: Well, yes. One of the things we love about history is the way in which one event takes on new meaning when understood in the context of another event, and I was struck, not in a mystical way, particularly, but I was struck by the coincidence that the building itself, the Pentagon, the ground was broken for it in a ceremony on the morning of September 11, 1941, 60 years, perhaps almost to the minute, before the building was hit by that hijacked airplane.

Once my attention was drawn to that date, I began to notice others. On September 11, 1945, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who had just presided over the military victory over Germany and Japan, and who had also presided over the creation of the atomic bomb, proposed after Nagasaki to President Truman that, “The United States, in order to,” as he put it, “head off an armament race of a rather desperate character,” his phrase, “should share the atomic bomb with the Soviet Union and enter into an international agreement for its control.” And Truman took that memo, that recommendation from Stimson, seriously enough to make it the subject of a full Cabinet meeting. A majority of the Cabinet officers thought it was a good idea.

The person who carried the day in the argument was the Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, whose paranoia about the Soviet Union soon enough showed itself to be rooted in his personal paranoia. Forrestal, the first Secretary of Defense, the man who did more to shape the American attitude toward the Soviet Union after World War II than any other single person, wound up, tragically, a suicide in 1949. Well, his suicide should have been a revelation of something to the American people that the perceptions we had put in place by then about this world enemy that threatened us so grievously that we had to then be prepared over the coming decades to oppose it in every way, including with the creation of a massive disastrously overlarge nuclear arsenal, that all of that began in an act of political paranoia that was rooted, tragically, in a personal paranoia of the man who was in charge of it.

AMY GOODMAN: So the majority of the Cabinet agreed that the nuclear weapons, so-called secret, should be shared with the Russians?

JAMES CARROLL: Yes, that some arrangement should — that we should go to the Soviet Union immediately, proposing some arrangement of joint control, joint renunciation. We will together renounce the development of this weapon and will — and the only way that would work, of course, if there was serious structures of joint control. It’s a second question whether Stalin and the Soviets would have accepted such a thing. But it says everything about the fact that we weren’t prepared to even seriously attempt it, the Baruch Plan that was developed later that year was not an authentic attempt to enter into an agreement like that with the Soviet Union, because it was never serious about surrendering American sovereignty over the bomb, and it looked always to maintain the monopoly.

So — and I would just point out that one of the most important supporters of the Stimson proposal on September 11, 1945, was Dean Acheson, who was the Undersecretary of State. Acheson, at that point, was a man who was prepared to trust the Soviet Union to some extent. The significance, of course, is that his conversion to becoming the most suspicious hawk in the Cabinet by the onset of the Korean War really tells the story of the turn in American consciousness that took place there, and in House of War, I’m trying to understand how what was put in motion in these crucial post-war moments continued through the Cold War and actually have continued until today.

AMY GOODMAN: As you talk about those who promoted war, promoted peace, I wanted to talk about a figure who you honored recently, William Sloane Coffin, the legendary antiwar priest who died last month at the age of 81. You gave the eulogy at his funeral. Let’s take a listen to a clip.

JAMES CARROLL: What made Bill Coffin famous was his rhetorical flair. His genius for the energetic sound bite was the solution to every reporter’s deadline problem. “It is not enough to pray for peace. Work for justice!” “War is a coward’s escape from the problems of peace.” “We must be governed by the force of law, not by the law of force.” Do you see what is going on here? This is the rhetoric of irony, a bringing together of polarities to see how the tensions of life can be brought to resolution. Irony of this sort is the essence of humor, which is why we remember, above all, Bill’s laughter. Irony depends on an exquisite balance of language and ideas both, opposites held in tension with each other, not to split them apart — that is sarcasm — but to promise a new kind of unity.

AMY GOODMAN: James Carroll at the funeral of William Sloane Coffin. Further thoughts?

JAMES CARROLL: Well, Bill was so important to so many of us. What I remember most powerfully about him, myself, was I found myself in a jail cell adjacent to him once in Washington, D.C.

AMY GOODMAN: Protesting what?

JAMES CARROLL: We were arrested at the U.S. Capitol for refusing to leave the Capitol after a demand that congressmen cut off appropriations for the war in Vietnam. I was not — I was a very timid participant in war protests, a few of them. Bill was bold. He was a source of strength for people like me, and I remember through the night his singing great stretches of Handel’s Messiah, especially the Hallelujah Chorus, as a source of tremendous strength.

AMY GOODMAN: Jim Carroll, speaking of peace activists, tomorrow night — well, we’re Both in Boston here, but we’ll both be back in New York, and you’ll be at the Salander-O’Reilly Gallery at 79th and Madison with Father Dan Berrigan, who yesterday celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday. There’s going to be a big event for him on June 10, but tomorrow night, you’ll be with him, and you write about the Berrigan brothers in House of War.

JAMES CARROLL: Well, I was a Catholic priest as a young man, and Dan Berrigan and Phil Berrigan gave me my image of what the priesthood could be and, I would say, should be. Dan and I didn’t know each other in October of 1967, but we were both together at the demonstration at the Pentagon, and that was the first time Dan Berrigan was arrested, and that was the beginning of an exemplary and, I would say, heroic life of resistance to war.

Dan Berrigan and his brother Phil changed the meaning of Roman Catholic belief for a whole generation of us Catholics, and he also had that tremendous impact on American culture generally. And, of course, the most important thing about Dan and Phil is they didn’t stop after the war in Vietnam stopped. They didn’t forget that America is still a nation at the mercy of the war impulse, and Phil and Dan have been witnesses for peace all these many years.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us, and we will be speaking again soon. We hardly touched House of War. That’s James Carroll’s new book, House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power, as he begins after this program his trip across country to talk about the book and the state of the country and the world today.

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