"Report From Iron Mountain"
'The Guest Word'

by Leonard Lewin
New York Times Book Review

March 19, 1972

 


The book came out in November, 1967, and generated controversy as soon as it appeared.

 

It purported to be the secret report of an anonymous "Special Study Group," set up, presumably at a very high level of government, to determine the consequences to American society of a "permanent" peace, and to draft a program to deal with them.

 

Its conclusions seemed shocking.

This commission found:

  • that even in the unlikely event that a lasting peace should prove "attainable," it would almost surely be undesirable

  • that the "war system" is essential to the functioning of a stable society

  • that until adequate replacement for it might be developed, wars and an "optimum" annual number of war deaths must be methodically planned and budgeted

And much more.

 

Most of the Report deals with the "basic" functions of war (economic, political, sociological, ecological, etc.) and with possible substitutes to serve them, which were examined and found wanting.

 

The text is preceded by my foreword, along with other background furnished by the "John Doe" who made the Report available.

The first question raised, of course, was that of its authenticity. But government spokesmen were oddly cautious in phrasing their denials, and for a short time, at least in Washington, more speculation was addressed to the Groupís members and of their sponsorship than to whether the Report was an actual quasi-official document. (The editors of Trans-action magazine, which ran an extensive round-up of opinion on the book, noted that government officials, as a class, were those most likely to accept it as the real thing.)

Eventually, however, in the absence of definitive confirmation either way, commentators tended to agree that it must be a political satire. In that case, who could have written it? Among the dozens of names mentioned, those of J. K. Galbraith and myself appeared most often, along with a mix of academics, politicians, think-tank drop-outs, and writers.

Most reviewers, relatively uncontaminated by overexposure to real-politik, were generous to what they saw as the authorís intentions:

to expose a kind of thinking in high places that was all too authentic, influential, and dangerous, and to stimulate more public discussion of some of the harder questions of war and peace.

But those who felt their own oxen gored-who could identify themselves in some way with the government, the military, "systems analysis", the established order of power-were not.

 

They attacked, variously, the substance of the Report; the competence of those who praised its effectiveness; and the motives of whomever they assigned the obloquy of authorship, often charging him with an disingenuous sympathy for the Reportís point of view.

 

The more important think-tankers, not unreasonably seeing the book as an indictment of their own collective moral sensibilities and intellectual pretensions, proffered literary as well as political judgments: very bad satire, declared Herman Kahn; lacking in bite, wrote Henry Rowen, of Rand. Whoever wrote it is an idiot, said Henry Kissinger. A handful of far-right zealots and eccentrics predictably applauded the Reportís conclusions.

Thatís as much background as I have room for, before destroying whatever residuum of suspense may still persist about the bookís authorship. I wrote the "Report," all of it. (How it came about and who was privy to the plot Iíll have to discuss elsewhere.) But why as a hoax?

What I intended was simply to pose the issues of war and peace in a provocative way. To deal with the essential absurdity of the fact that the war system, however much deplored, is nevertheless accepted as part of the necessary order of things. To caricature the bankruptcy of the think-tank mentality by pursuing its style of scientistic thinking to its logical ends. And perhaps, with luck, to extend the scope of public discussion of "peace planning" beyond its usual, stodgy limits.

Several sympathetic critics of the book felt that the guessing-games it set off tended to deflect attention from those objectives, and thus to dilute its effects. To be sure. Yet if the "argument" of the Report had not been hyped up by its ambiguous authenticity-is it just possibly for real?-its serious implications wouldnít have been discussed either. At all.

 

This may be a brutal commentary on what it sometimes takes to get conspicuous exposure in the supermarket of political ideas, or it may only exemplify how an oblique approach may work when directed engagement fails. At any rate, the who-done-it aspect of the book was eventually superseded by sober critiques.

At this point it became clear that whatever surviving utility the Report might have, if any, would be as a point-of-departure book-for the questions it raises, not for the specious "answers" it purports to offer. And it seemed to me that unless a minimum of uncertainty about its origins could be sustained-i.e., so long as I didnít explicitly acknowledge writing it-its value as a model for this kind of "policy analysis" might soon be dissipated.

 

So I continued to play the no-comment game.

Until now. The charade is over, whatever is left of it. For the satirical conceit of Iron Mountain, like so many others, has been overtaken by the political phenomena it attacked. Iím referring to those other documents-real ones, and verifiable-that have appeared in print. The Pentagon papers were not written by someone like me.

 

Neither was the Defense Departmentís Pax Americana study (how to take over Latin America). Nor was the script of Mr. Kissingerís "Special Action Group," reported by Jack Anderson (how to help Pakistan against India while pretending to be neutral).

So far as I know, no one has challenged the authenticity of these examples of high-level strategic thinking. I believe a disinterested reader would agree that sections of them are as outrageous, morally, and intellectually, as any of the Iron Mountain inventions.

 

No, the revelations lay rather in the style of the reasoning-the profound cynicism, the contempt for public opinion. Some of the documents read like parodies of Iron Mountain, rather than the reverse.

These new developments may have helped fuel the debates the book continues to ignite, but they raised a new problem for me.

 

It was that the balance of uncertainty about the bookís authorship could "tilt," as Kissinger might say, the other way. (Was that Defense order for 5,000-odd paperbacks, someone might ask, really for routine distribution to overseas libraries-or was it for another, more sinister, purpose?)

 

Iím glad my own Special Defense Contingency Plan included planting two nonexistent references in the bookís footnotes to help me prove, if I ever have to, that the work is fictitious.

 

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