Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
THE past year has given ample evidence of the grim truth that in the making of total war the totalitarian state enjoys considerable initial advantages over a democratic adversary. These advantages in preparation and initiative have always lain with absolute rulers. The free nation has found compensation in its greater staying power, its ability to retrieve disaster, and its higher morale under defeat. So true has this been, that since the invention of firearms (which made the common foot-soldier superior to the armored knight) there has not been, until last year, any instance of a strong and well-established republic being conquered and enslaved by an absolutist power; while there have been many instances of peoples determined to be free wrenching their freedom by force from tyrants, even well-intrenched ones, or maintaining it against absolutist assault.
Until last year. The date is significant. For just as firearms helped make possible the emancipation of burgher and peasant from feudal slavery, so now it is a question whether the mechanization of warfare -- and particularly the development of those weapons of which the internal combustion engine is the heart -- has not produced another revolutionary change affecting not only the conduct of war but its political consequences. Has the speed, range and power of the offensive become so great that initial disaster may be made irretrievable? Has the disparity in armament between the victor who has his force intact and the vanquished who has lost his equipment (and may temporarily be deprived of the means of making more) become so great that no amount of higher morale can be relied on gradually to compensate for such disadvantages? It seems quite possible that these things are true. In other words, the tempo of war, like other human activities, may have been so accelerated by the Machine Age as to require a complete recasting of our theories of national defense, of security, of the maintenance of peace and, in general, of the conduct of international relations.
The character of total war carries it outside the purely military field. Totalitarian attack is not only a matter of coördinated assault, at the assailant's selected moment and after full preparation, with forces precisely adapted to the end to be accomplished. It is also a matter of political attack from within the ranks of the enemy, of psychological attack on his morale, and of economic attack both from within and without. Indeed, it is by the coordination of all these methods, and the coördination, within each category, of every means available without stint and without scruple, that totalitarian war seeks to achieve success.
In principle, there is nothing new in all this. The three great immutable principles of war still stand, indeed are once more proven sound by this seemingly new experience. These principles are: Concentration, Offensive Action, Security. The first demands concentration of power, of means, of effort. The second demands striking at a selected objective with the concentrated force. The third demands that in the meantime no vital interest of the attacker is to be exposed to enemy counter-action. These principles the Germans know, and apply.
They cannot be defeated except by those who in their turn can apply these principles to their own efforts. Simple, static defense is not enough. It serves only to gain time -- that is, either to stave off defeat temporarily, or to permit the gathering of force for a counter-offensive. The latter must come, or defeat is certain. If we have not learned that lesson from the centuries of warfare that have gone before, let us at least learn it from the fate of France.
When we seek to apply the above to the conditions immediately facing this nation we must realize that to await the moment selected by the Germans is to court defeat; but we must likewise realize that for us to take the offensive we must prepare offensive means and possess bases from which those means may be employed. This does not necessarily mean a vast A. E. F. for Europe, now or later. The Germans have shown us other ways. It means that we must be prepared to take the offensive not only with armed force, naval and aerial, but in the political, psychological and economic fields. It means that we must seek out the methods of attack suited to our national genius and our available resources. Of these methods, land fighting on a great scale obviously is not at present possible and may never be required. A Germany defeated on all the other fronts -- on every one of which we and our associates can establish an unquestionable and decisive superiority -- will hardly require to be defeated on land, where her power is greatest now. The foundations of her land power will crumble away; the energies which give her armies life can be destroyed at their fountainhead. The Germans have given much thought to military security. They have rightly anticipated that they would not be attacked in other fields (save economically by blockade) very soon. But they are not as secure against these other forms of counter-attack as they may be against a direct invasion of the continent they have enslaved.
Above, very briefly set forth, are certain of the ingredients of victory. It is a victory which must be won if freedom is not to perish from the earth. In its winning, America must take the leading part. It is her duty -- it is her right. But in order for her to make her full contribution on all the battlefields to which her energies may be called, America is badly in need of leadership, planning and direction. In all these qualities totalitarian Germany has so far been surpassingly efficient. In all of them, then, free men must meet and overmatch her. And they must do it without the sacrifice of the essential freedoms. It can be done.
Yet the record makes clear that no free people will rise to really efficient action unless the danger is overwhelmingly close -- when it may be too late -- or unless it is roused by a dynamic and realistic leadership. Evidently a free people is not in a position to make full use of its resources, however great, for the coördinated purposes of total war unless there has been careful planning. Evidently a free people cannot conduct total war in all its phases without competent direction, inspired by trustworthy leadership and proceeding according to well-conceived plans. Lacking these, it will be defeated, maybe irretrievably. The task facing the American people is therefore not only to take appropriate action to preserve their way of life, but to create the necessary organs of leadership, planning and direction to make certain that their action is sufficient, timely and in the end victorious.
At present we have no such organs, or possess them only in rudimentary and uncoördinated form. This is not for lack of warning. The subject of planning for defense is not, for example, new to these pages. In this review, and elsewhere, experts like Hanson Baldwin and Lindsay Rogers have again and again pointed out the defects in our peacetime organization and planning machinery.[i] The present writer has contributed to these warnings from time to time. The discussion may now be narrowed to the immediate requirements of the moment, however, rather than directed to the developement of permanent arrangements.
For the moment, time is the principal factor in all that we do and plan to do. We ought, therefore, to try to create an efficient organization as quickly as possible, and one which can give us the quickest possible results. This suggests that wherever possible we should seek to develop and improve upon the elementary facilities which we already possess rather than to create a whole new fabric from the ground up. Moreover, we are restricted by the absolute necessity of making our war machinery fit within the framework of our existing constitutional structure.
We begin, then, with the broad powers of the President both as chief executive of the Republic and as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. Such additional powers as he may need may be the subject of legislation. Indeed, they have largely been embodied in the draft legislation appended to the Industrial Mobilization Plan and intended to implement it. It is to the President, initially, by virtue of his powers and his responsibilities, that we must look for leadership. But no single man, however wise and gifted, can exercise those powers and discharge those responsibilities without properly organized assistance, advice and information. The same problem on a smaller scale arises in the case of the commander of an army. Where formerly -- as in the Civil War -- it was considered sufficient to provide such a commander with a few aides (personal staff), plus an administrative staff (adjutant-general, quartermaster-general, and so forth, each member being responsible for a certain phase of administration), the modern requirements and complexities introduced by the increase in the number and type of weapons and the increased speed of movement has necessitated the creation of a general staff, as distinct from the old administrative staff. The function of the general staff is planning, coördination, control -- or, more concretely, to provide the commander with the information and estimates necessary to a decision, and then to see to it that the decision is properly executed by all subordinates concerned.
The President now possesses a personal staff (his secretaries and executive assistants) and an administrative staff (his Cabinet). He does not have a general staff, and he needs one badly. But to create one out of whole cloth, composed entirely of people who have not previously been dealing with matters of high policy, might be to impose fatal delays while the new men became acquainted with their duties and with all that had been planned, done and proposed before they took over. There is not time for that. Moreover, let us for a moment consider the nature of staffs, or committees (the civilian term for such advisory and executive groups).
It is necessary for members of such bodies, charged with high responsibility, to have relief from the pressure of the infinite details connected with administrative posts. One reason for creating a general staff for the President is to relieve him of such pressure. This will hardly be accomplished by giving him a staff composed of men likewise harried and shackled. The members of such a staff must have time to think, to plan, to foresee and forestall; to examine the record of experience; and, guided by the light of the past, to project their minds into the future. They ought to be as free as possible to devote themselves to broad aspects of policy, leaving detail to competent subordinates under the guidance of general directives laid down by the President. The main task of the staff is to assist him in formulating these directives.
In the last war, no really satisfactory organization for the British cabinet was discovered until Mr. Lloyd George set up his "War Cabinet," in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer alone was the head of an Executive Department, the other four members being "without portfolio."
But there is another side to this conception of a War Cabinet or Presidential General Staff, and that is the very grave dangers which lie in divorcing the planning of policy from responsibility for its execution. In war planning especially, the work of planning must go hand in hand with the actual conduct of operations, for every day unforeseen developments will alter in some degree the plans of yesterday. A staff charged with advising the nation's Commander-in-Chief on plans, on the procurement of resources to meet the needs of those plans, and on the translation of plans into operations, must include some of those responsible for carrying out the plans -- just as the board of directors of a corporation customarily includes several of the principal executive officers. In the British War Cabinet, above referred to, the members "without portfolio," though not heads of departments, were each charged with general oversight of, or at least a particular and understood relation to, a definite phase of the activities of the British Government -- one with military operations, another with supply and procurement, and so on. Moreover, it was the invariable custom to have present at meetings of the War Cabinet the actual heads of departments whose work was under discussion, as well as the chiefs of the fighting services when appropriate.
What is needed, then, is a directing and planning body in the realm of the higher decisions, the members of which will be sufficiently relieved from details to enable them to give most if not all their time to the great tasks of planning and deciding, and at the same time will be sufficiently in touch with what is going on to bring to that work sufficient day-to-day knowledge of the course of events to enable them properly to weigh risks against advantages; moreover, who will have a responsibility, joint and several, for the execution of the decisions reached, sobering in its effect and essential to efficient progress. Probably only a certain amount of experimentation will enable final adjustment between the necessary time to think, on the one hand, and the necessary flow of authority on the other.
Time to think is essential, it cannot be dispensed with. And yet, as Sir Arthur Salter remarks in his "Allied Shipping Control": "Nothing is so ineffective as a committee which consists of persons each of whom has no specialized function and no personal executive authority, and yet tries to direct executive action. But if a number of persons, each of whom has a direct executive authority which he continues to exercise in his own special sphere, meet from time to time in order to dovetail their several measures and adjust them to a common plan, and then return to their departments to put into effect what they have agreed, the committee is an effective instrument of coöperative action." It should, however, be borne in mind that in a War Cabinet or staff such as we are considering, the planning and advisory function is paramount: that is, the joint activity of the whole is of greater importance than the several activities of the members.
In the light of these considerations, let us now see how we may approach the immediate problems at hand, especially how we can adapt to their solution our existing American institutions with as little lost time and waste motion as possible.
It is quite plain that the Presidential General Staff-- perhaps we had better call it the War Cabinet, and have done -- should include some members of the existing Cabinet. Those who would almost always have to be present would be the Secretaries of State, War, the Navy and the Treasury. To these four we might add certain new members to be given Cabinet status "without portfolio," but charged each with a special relation to certain essential activities -- one for production and procurement, let us say, one for morale, propaganda and civilian defense, and one for economic warfare. This would give a total of seven members, which is about as large a body as can work satisfactorily together. The three members "without portfolio" should of course be citizens of outstanding character, ability and public standing, chosen with a view not only to the efficient discharge of their functions but also with a view to commanding popular confidence. Care should be taken that their supervision of their several specialties should be of a general nature, avoiding the mass of administrative detail which should be the province of the proper executive officers, the heads of the agencies charged with carrying out the policies agreed upon.
As for the four Secretaries, much could be done in the way of reorganizing their departments so that all ordinary routine matters could be handled by the Under-Secretaries and Assistant Secretaries, leaving only the major decisions to be made by the departmental heads. The work of the War Cabinet should be considered the major task of its members, and every endeavor should be made to free them from red tape and detail, while still maintaining the close touch with general departmental activities which is necessary both for effective departmental control and for the essential connection between the executive departments and the War Cabinet.
On the whole, this plan, while admittedly a compromise all round, is at least a promising beginning. Only in actual practice can the many hitches and complications that are certain to develop be eliminated. At least the President would be provided with an advisory and planning staff, directly associated with the execution of policy.
But in order for the War Cabinet to perform its functions its work must be carefully and thoroughly organized. It cannot simply function in the loose fashion of a weekly Cabinet meeting, sometimes held and sometimes not. It should meet daily, at an appointed and regular hour, to consider the vitally important subjects of its agenda. These meetings should normally be under the chairmanship of the President; but the President's occasional inability (because of the terrible demands on his time) to meet with the War Cabinet should not prevent any of the daily meetings taking place. The Vice President should be the Vice-Chairman of the War Cabinet, and preside over it in the President's absence. This will also serve the purpose of keeping the Vice President thoroughly in touch with current policies and plans, a matter upon which the safety of the nation might rest in case of the death or disability of the President.
The War Cabinet's meetings ought not, of course, to be confined to its members. No doubt meetings so confined would be necessary; but the ordinary meeting should be attended by others whose work is involved in the particular decisions to be taken. Among those frequently to be present would be the remaining members of the Cabinet, as occasion might render necessary; the Chief of Staff of the Army, the Deputy Chief of Staff (Air), the Chief of Naval Operations; the Director of the Office of Production Management; the Director of Civil Defense; the heads of executive agencies having to do with shipping, economic warfare, morale, propaganda and counter-propaganda, raw materials, and perhaps some others. Care should however be taken to keep attendance to the minimum necessary to the discharge of the day's business, as nothing is more wasteful of time and effort than an excess of numbers participating in discussion.
To see to this, as well as to other problems of routine and work-organization, should be the care of a permanent Secretariat to the War Cabinet. Great care should be taken in the selection of the officer to head this Secretariat, and in its organization. It should be the servant of the War Cabinet and of the President; it should never be permitted to develop into an executive organism itself. Its duties should be to keep up to date, by daily additions, deletions and changes, a Central Estimate of the Situation; to maintain liaison between the War Cabinet, the various sub-committees thereof, the executive departments and agencies, and the Congress; to prepare the agenda of each day's work, under the direction of the War Cabinet; to prepare digested reports and memoranda for use in connection with the work of each day; to prepare and circulate orders and decisions of the President, giving effect to the work of the War Cabinet; and to prepare such reports and memoranda for the use of the President, the War Cabinet, and Congressional organisms as might be required. The Secretariat should not of itself have authority to issue directions to executive departments; but it should have direct access to them, and the right to obtain information and assistance from them in the pursuance of its proper duties.
Too much emphasis cannot be laid upon these two matters -- the daily meetings, and the permanent Secretariat. They will give the War Cabinet the definite and established character necessary for it to discharge its grave responsibilities successfully.
The War Cabinet in no sense detracts from the President's responsibility or authority. Indeed, it adds to his powers by relieving him of detail, by presenting him with considered and informed advice, and by giving the public the assurance that sound methods are being taken to reach momentous decisions. The guiding principle should be that the War Cabinet advises, the President decides, the executive departments carry out the decisions.
The matter of how the War Cabinet is to secure professional advice in the realm of strategy, as well as in that of production and procurement, and in other fields, demands attention. This was a source of difficulty to the British War Cabinet in the last war. The failure at the Dardanelles, for example, is ascribed in part to the view taken by the professional advisers, naval and military, that once they had expressed their dissent to their civilian superiors and had been overruled, they were bound in loyalty to remain silent when the matter came up for discussion in their presence by the War Cabinet. In the light of this experience, the British principle now lays down that the military advisers of the War Cabinet (or of the Committee of Imperial Defense in time of peace) have the duty to make their views known and the right to have them recorded. It is hard to see how this principle can be improved upon. The British practice is that the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, the Chief of the Air Staff, and the First Sea Lord (Chief of the Naval Staff) form what is called the Chiefs of Staff Sub-committee of the War Cabinet, and are responsible jointly and severally for giving military advice to the War Cabinet. They are, as one British writer puts it, a sort of "super-chief of staff in commission."
In this country the President has taken a step in the right direction by placing the Joint Board of the Army and Navy under his personal direction. It might be suggested, however, that the Joint Board at present is too large and that it should be reconstituted, to consist only of the Chief of Staff of the Army, the Deputy Chief of Staff (Air) and the Chief of Naval Operations. These officers should be invested, while retaining their individual responsibilities, with an additional joint responsibility for the giving of military advice to the President and the War Cabinet. It should be a matter of course for them to attend all meetings of the War Cabinet at which military decisions are to be taken. To assist them in carrying out their joint responsibility, and especially for the purpose of producing, under the direction of the Joint Board, coördinated memoranda and reports, there should be a small group of specially selected officers of both services.
This special staff should be quite distinct from the Joint Planning Committee, which should serve directly under the Joint Board and should consist of the Chiefs of the War Plans Divisions of the two services, with such assistants as might be necessary, and probably including a representative of the agency concerned with economic warfare and one of the Office of Production Management. To furnish the information required by the Joint Planning Committee, there should be a Joint Intelligence Committee, consisting of the Intelligence Chiefs of the two services, plus representatives from the State and Justice Departments and the economic warfare agency, also with the necessary assistants. In the matter of procurement and production, the relationship of the Director of the Office of Production Management to the War Cabinet should be much the same as that of the Chiefs of the fighting services.
It seems likely that experience will show the advisability of having much of the "spade work" of the War Cabinet done by sub-committees of one sort and another -- groups working together (according to the principle laid down by Sir Arthur Salter, quoted above), composed of people actually dealing with, or having special knowledge of, the particular subjects involved. Whether, as the British found advisable in some cases, members of the War Cabinet should sit as Chairmen of some of the more important of these sub-committees, is a matter for experience to determine. The members of the War Cabinet ought to be protected as far as possible from demands on their time which do not help them directly to carry out their fundamental duties.
The basic advantage of a War Cabinet so constituted is that it would afford the means of coördinating the work of the various executive departments and agencies and of the various joint committees which now seek to effect some degree of coördination. It provides for a flow of information upward, and of decision and authority downward. It assures the continuity and consistency of policy. It avoids waste motion and makes real team-work possible. It gives point and direction to the efforts of the Government in such manner that the resulting "indoctrination" is felt by all concerned. This translates itself into public confidence in the efficiency of the Government and its agencies. It prevents conditions such as described recently to this writer by a high official, who said: "There is no national policy. There are departmental policies, conceived within each executive department according to its lights. The trouble is, they are all different."
In the field of leadership, the War Cabinet system provides the President with information and advice, relieves him of detail, and keeps before him a running estimate of the situation, military, economic, political and psychological. He has more time to think, to consider the broad general lines of policy. He has more information on which to base sound decisions. The quality of his leadership cannot fail to be enhanced.
In the field of planning, the War Cabinet system provides machinery for coördinated planning. It brings together the labors of the executive departments and the many sub-committees studying special subjects, introducing into its discussions the clear expositions and analyses from which simple and direct plans can be prepared. It reduces to a minimum the useless dispersion of effort. It avoids waste of the nation's resources in unproductive labors where they are most ruinous, at the top. It insures that first things shall come first.
In the field of direction, the War Cabinet system provides means by which the plans agreed upon, and which have received the approval of the President, may be carried into execution under the supervision of those who have had a share in their making. In this connection, a suggestion made by Lieutenant Colonel Garsia in his admirable book, "A Key to Victory," seems worth-while -- that under the War Cabinet there should be a sub-committee for each theater of operations, or each special enterprise. This sub-committee should include a representative of the officer in command, or the person charged with carrying on the enterprise. This sub-committee would have the task of keeping up a daily study of what is being accomplished in its particular sphere of attention; of what resources are needed, and will be needed later, for further accomplishment; and to act in some part as an advocate of its campaign or task before the President and War Cabinet, who must weigh these needs and apportion the available resources according to the requirements of the moment. When there are conflicting claims to be settled, ex parte decisions ought not to be taken, but the claims of those whose requirements are in conflict should be heard by the President and the War Cabinet, each in the presence of the others.
Such a system of planning and direction involves the "grading" of the various subsidiary plans that will be brought forward; the selection of those plans and methods which seem best suited to accomplishment of the chosen objectives; and the daily prosecution of the war or the accomplishment of the national ends with resources best adapted to the purpose. It serves also to keep the objectives themselves, and the methods chosen to attain them, within the limits imposed by the available means. It puts new ideas to the test of careful and impartial scrutiny, while tending to guard against the rejection of ideas for no other fault than novelty. It tends to eliminate, within the limits of human foresight, the waste and danger that attend hasty changes of plan and improvisations in the face of surprise moves by the enemy.
Two other points with which this article cannot deal directly should be given attention. One is the relation between the executive and the legislative branches of the Government in the conduct of war. At present no less than eight Congressional committees and sub-committees are concerned with national defense: the Military and Naval Affairs Committees of each House, and the subcommittees on Military and Naval Affairs, respectively, of the Appropriations Committees of each House. In addition, the Foreign Relations Committees and probably the Commerce Committees of each House are closely involved in discussions of war policies. There is obvious need for a single Committee of each House on National Defense, to consider not details, but matters affecting the national defense as a whole. It should not take the place of the existing committees, but there should be an arrangement for interlocking memberships in order to save time and eliminate duplication of effort. Finally, there should be set up a system of liaison officers, through whom the War Cabinet and the Executive Departments would maintain close touch with the Congressional Committees.
The other point requiring consideration is the matter of how best to coöperate with Britain, the British Dominions, the Latin American Republics and other possible allies or associates -- the Netherlands and China, for example. The conduct of war by a coalition is a subject which has received little attention and study. Yet in these days, when time is of such vital importance and when the enemy is in a position to take single-handed decisions, a means clearly must be found of offsetting this advantage by equally efficient methods. The War Cabinet plan offers possibilities for arranging a close collaboration with our associates which would be difficult if not impossible to achieve under our present loosely articulated system. This is not the place to go into a detailed discussion of this subject, but its importance can hardly be overemphasized.
Fortunately, certain steps have already been taken in the direction of establishing more efficient machinery for our leadership, planning and direction in war. The President has taken the most important of these steps in setting up the authority for executing the provisions of the Lease-Lend Bill. This authority consists of the Secretaries of State, War, the Navy and the Treasury, and Mr. Harry L. Hopkins. Mr. Hopkins thus represents the Cabinet members "without portfolio" suggested above. He has begun to assemble a group of advisers and liaison officers which could easily become the nucleus of a suitable Secretariat, just as the Lease-Lend Authority itself could easily pass from its present character into that of a true War Cabinet. The ground-work, at least, has been laid.
It is not beyond the genius of the American people to create instruments of government and command which are capable of dealing with anything that totalitarian efficiency can produce. Today the vital need is that all concerned -- which means every citizen -- should realize the imperative necessity of wasting no time. If we are to defend our way of life we must have not only weapons, but the right weapons; we must have not only armed forces, but armed forces of the size and character the situation demands; we must not only act, but our actions must be timely and effective. We must, in short, provide not only the material ingredients of victory, but the leadership, planning and direction without which victory cannot be achieved. We can do this if we will. There is still time. But the sands are running out.
[i] Cf. Lindsay Rogers, "Civilian Control of Military Policy," January 1940, and "National Defense: Plan or Patchwork?" October 1940; and Hanson W. Baldwin, "America Rearms," April 1938, "Our New Long Shadow," April 1939, and "The New American Army," October 1940.