Crisis of Command
America’s Broken Civil-Military Relationship Imperils National Security
What comes after crisis? Can the United States really “build back better”? And what does history say about the possibilities for national renewal?
The first articles in this issue’s package propose a radical experiment: try an administration with both character and competence. Samantha Power argues that Joe Biden’s team can earn legitimacy and respect by getting the pandemic under control, fighting corruption, and reopening to the world. Jason Furman proposes a two-stage economic plan, with immediate measures designed to help the unemployed and keep the recovery going followed by broader structural reforms. And Jennifer Nuzzo shows how to rethink global health security so as to prevent future catastrophes.
The remaining articles seek guidance from the past, exploring previous national attempts to deal with structural racism, inequality, economic crisis, and democratic regression. David Blight, writing on the Civil War and Reconstruction; Zephyr Teachout, on the Gilded Age and progressivism; Meg Jacobs, on the Great Depression and the New Deal; and John Lawrence, on Watergate and the reforms that followed, all agree: progress is possible, but always slow, hard-won, and partial, with unfinished struggles passed on from one generation to the next.
Seventy years ago, the United States was in trouble. Then, as now, Washington was gripped by a wave of populist demagoguery, with Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy ranting about treasonous deep-state conspiracies. China was also on the march—back then, quite literally, pushing bedraggled UN forces down and maybe off the Korean Peninsula. But in late December 1950, the commanding general of the U.S. Eighth Army was killed in a car accident, and history flipped.
The new commander, Matthew Ridgway, realized that the military situation in Korea was dire but salvageable. He restored professional standards, replaced unfit officers, rebuilt morale, and instilled a sense of purpose. Sure enough, within months, his forces had pushed the enemy back and earned a stalemate, which was eventually translated into an armistice.
A few years later, still chasing his imagined demons, McCarthy took on the U.S. Army in televised hearings. The American public watched closely and, fever passing, decided that decency was a good thing after all.
Character and competence have saved the country before. They could again.
—Gideon Rose, Editor