"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
Its conclusions seemed shocking.
This commission found:
that even in the unlikely event that a
lasting peace should prove "attainable," it would almost surely
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
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:
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
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.
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.
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
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