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Daydream Believers

How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power

by Fred Kaplan

Hardcover, 246 pages, John Wiley & Sons Inc, List Price: $25.95 |


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How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power
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Book Summary

The author of the "War Stories" column in Slate argues that America's foreign policy under the Bush administration has gone astray not only because of incompetence, but also because of misconceptions about world politics, the lessons of history, the nature of warfare, democracy, and other so-called "Daydreamer" beliefs.

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Excerpt: Daydream Believers

Daydream Believers

John Wiley & Sons

Copyright © 2008 Fred Kaplan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-470-12118-4

Chapter One

The Mirage of Instant Victory

Two weeks after George W. Bush took office, his secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, invited an old friend named Andrew Marshall to lunch.

Rumsfeld had held this job once before, in 1975, during the final year of Gerald Ford's brief presidency. He was just forty-two back then, the youngest defense secretary in history. Now, at sixty-eight, he was the oldest, though still vigorous. In the quarter-century between the two appointments, he had done well in the private sector, most notably as chief executive officer of G. D. Searle Pharmaceuticals. By the time Bush was elected, Rumsfeld was eager to return to power, but only if he had a mandate to shake things up. Bush gave him that mandate.

Near the start of his presidential campaign, Bush had given a speech at The Citadel-the historic military college in Charleston, South Carolina-spelling out his top priorities for a new defense policy. He would deploy antiballistic missiles "at the earliest possible date," even if doing so meant withdrawing from the ABM Treaty, the long-standing centerpiece of Russian-American arms control accords. And he would transform the United States military. A "revolution in the technology of war" was in the works, he declared. Battles of the future would be won not by an army's "mass or size," but by its "mobility and swiftness," and vital new roles would be played by information networks and by highly accurate missiles and bombs.

If taken seriously, this was a truly dramatic pronouncement. It would mean a new concept of nuclear deterrence, an overhaul of the Army, a new look for war and peace.

As president, Bush said, he would order his secretary of defense to conduct "an immediate, comprehensive review of our military-the structure of its forces, the state of its strategy, the priorities of its procurement." The secretary would have "a broad mandate-to challenge the status quo and envision a new architecture of American defense for decades to come." Now that he was president, he told Rumsfeld to carry out that comprehensive review.

That's why Rumsfeld asked Andy Marshall to come have lunch. Marshall had done more than any single person to foment this revolution. He had been a central figure in spelling out its elements and implications. He had directly influenced dozens of defense officials and analysts, in and out of government. Bush's Citadel speech was based, in large measure, on ideas that Marshall had long propagated.

Marshall was just short of eighty years old when Rumsfeld called him. He'd been working in the Pentagon for the last twenty-eight of those years, uninterrupted, through six-now, with Bush, seven-presidents. His title all those years was Director of the Office of Net Assessment. James Schlesinger had appointed him to the job when he was defense secretary back in 1973, during Richard Nixon's administration. Schlesinger and Marshall had been friends and colleagues at the RAND Corporation, the U.S. Air Force-sponsored think tank in Santa Monica that fostered some of the early thinking about nuclear war and nuclear deterrence in the 1950s.

Marshall had started work at RAND in 1949, among the very first of those thinkers. Some of his associates would write books, or give lectures to vast audiences, or take jobs in Washington. But Marshall had no craving for the limelight or for visible power. When he did finally go to work in the nation's capital-at first, briefly, as a consultant at the National Security Council before moving over to the Pentagon-his office was obscure by design, mandated to report only to his immediate boss, not to Congress or the public, and that suited him fine. He was a gnomic operator who never put his name on an article and rarely said a word at meetings. His furtiveness spawned a mystique, which amused him. After the movie The Empire Strikes Back came out, some referred to him as "Yoda." He had stayed at his job for so long (longer than anyone else at a policy level in all of Washington) for two reasons. First, he tried, as much as possible, to stay out of the fights over budgets and weapons systems, which stirred so many rivalries and frayed so many tempers. Second, he built a far-flung network of acolytes and loyalists: officers whose unconventional projects he had encouraged and helped to fund; analysts whose work he had sponsored and whose ideas he had helped form; and high-ranking officials, as well as committee chairmen on Capitol Hill, who simply valued having a man of ideas so high up in the Pentagon.

When Bill Cohen, the third of President Clinton's three secretaries of defense, tried to eliminate Marshall's office as a cost-cutting measure, dozens of powerhouses from all over Washington urged-in some cases threatened-Cohen to back off. He did.

Marshall figured the lunch with Rumsfeld would be a perfunctory get-together, the two of them in the secretary's office, discussing what roles the Office of Net Assessment might play this time around. But he was told the lunch would take place in the Gold Room-the ornate private dining hall near the secretary's office on the Pentagon's third floor, where the waiters have security clearances, so that classified matters can be discussed without restraint-and that a few other officials, including Rumsfeld's new deputy secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, would also attend.

As soon as everyone sat down, Rumsfeld came to the point. He wanted Marshall to write a paper on a new strategy, a guide on how to look at the new world and how the U.S. military should adapt to it.

Marshall was almost excited. His office had no institutional power; it was influential only to the extent that a secretary of defense wanted it to be, and the last couple of secretaries hadn't been keen about the notion. He had known and liked Rumsfeld for many years. The first time Rumsfeld was secretary, he frequently marked up the margins of Marshall's reports with notes and questions. In recent years, when Rumsfeld chaired panels on military issues-to prepare for a return to power-he had always asked Marshall to present a briefing.

Rumsfeld wanted the strategy paper done within six weeks. Marshall wrote a first draft in just a few days. A paper like this had been swirling around in his head for years. The events and inventions that served as its foundation had been evolving and coalescing for three decades, and he had been tracking them all closely, in some cases helping to push them along. Maybe now something would really happen; maybe someone would translate his ideas into policy.

* * *

In 1973, the year Marshall came to the Pentagon, two big things were happening in the realm of defense policy. First, the Vietnam War, clearly a disaster, was winding down. Second, attention was shifting back to the military balance in Europe, and it didn't look good. Along the border of East and West Germany, the troops of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact had long outnumbered those of the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. NATO's qualitative superiority had always compensated for the Warsaw Pact's numerical edge. Now it seemed that the Soviets were catching up on quality.

The Yom Kippur War erupted in October, one month before Marshall went to work for Schlesinger. Israel beat back the Arab armies through superior tactics and firepower, but some of the Arabs' Soviet-made weapons performed better than expected. The war also revealed how intense and fast-paced modern battles could be. Guided missiles, especially antiarmor and antiair missiles, played a bigger role than they had in previous wars. Forces advanced and retreated on the battlefield with remarkable speed.

Officers who considered the possibility of a NATO-Warsaw Pact war had assumed the United States would have time to mobilize reinforcements if the Soviets ever invaded. Now it seemed that the first battle might be decisive. And it was widely accepted that the United States couldn't use nuclear weapons to beat back the Soviet army; the Soviets had attained nuclear parity with America by this point; if the U.S. fired nukes, the U.S.S.R. could fire back.

That year, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, a high-tech think tank inside the Pentagon, commissioned a secret study that carried a deliberately vague title: "The Long Range Research and Development Planning Program." Its purpose was "to identify and characterize" new military technologies that might give the president "a variety of response options"-including "alternatives to massive nuclear destruction"-if the Soviets invaded Western Europe.

ARPA set up three working panels to conduct the study. One, the Strategic Alternatives Panel, was chaired by a defense analyst named Albert Wohlstetter. At the time, Wohlstetter was a professor at the University of Chicago. But through the 1950s and into the early '60s, he had been one of the top nuclear strategists at the RAND Corporation. Wohlstetter was Andy Marshall's chief mentor in his RAND days; he was the chief mentor to most of the analysts who thought about deterring and fighting nuclear wars.

Wohlstetter was intensely charismatic. He grew up in New York City, studied mathematical logic and philosophy at City College, knew about good wine, food, modern design, and architecture. His wife, Roberta, wrote a seminal book on why U.S. intelligence didn't detect signs of the attack on Pearl Harbor. (Titled Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, it was written at RAND under Andy Marshall's supervision.) She was also a gourmet cook. Albert's acolytes would gather for dinner at the Wohlstetters' home in the Hollywood hills and discuss the finer things in life as well as the deadliest. It was a heady experience for men who spent their workdays calculating bomb-damage probabilities on slide rules.

In the early '50s, Wohlstetter had led RAND's most famous study, a quantitative analysis concluding that the U.S. Strategic Air Command's massive fleet of nuclear bombers was vulnerable to a Soviet sneak attack. There were vast gaps in SAC's early-warning radar systems. The bombers themselves were sitting out on runways, unprotected and, for the most part, unarmed. They lacked the range to fly nonstop from the United States to Russia, so, in order to launch a retaliatory attack, they would first have to fly to "staging bases," where they would be armed and refueled. The problem, in Wohlstetter's analysis, was that the equation worked both ways. The staging bases were close enough to hit Russia, but that meant Russian bombers were close enough to hit the bases. The Soviets could bomb the bases and render them useless before American commanders could even get their own strike under way.

Wohlstetter was a showman. He took his top-secret study to Washington and briefed it to officers and officials-in the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House-ninety-two times. A few years later, he wrote a follow-up study that revealed vulnerabilities in the Air Force's deployment plan for intercontinental ballistic missiles. He wrote an unclassified version of the study and published it in the January 1959 issue of Foreign Affairs under the title "The Delicate Balance of Terror." Everyone in the foreign policy establishment read the article. Everyone was stunned by it. Washington was in the grip of fear over a "missile gap." The intelligence branch of the Air Force and its allies in Congress were charging that the United States was perilously behind the Soviet Union in long-range missiles. Wohlstetter considered the charge oversimplified, but his article fed the fears and lent them intellectual credibility.

Though he didn't know it, Wohlstetter's conclusions were based on faulty intelligence (it turned out that the Soviet Union was way behind the United States in long-range missiles and had no ability to launch a disarming first strike). His analysis had useful consequences, in any case. The Air Force dispersed its bomber fleet and put the planes on alert. When ICBMs came along, they too were dispersed and encased in underground, blast-resistant silos.

Inside the community of defense intellectuals, Wohlstetter's study influenced the way all such subsequent studies would be conducted. His method of quantitative "systems analysis" gave the strategists a niche. The military establishment at the time had no training in this sort of analysis. Civilians like Wohlstetter and his colleagues could brief their studies in Washington-and possibly have an impact. And Wohlstetter emerged from the exercise a sort of demigod; in certain circles, anything he said would be taken very seriously.

* * *

When Wohlstetter was appointed to the Strategic Alternatives Panel, he talked frequently with Marshall about the study. ARPA had a number of intriguing technologies on the drawing board. One implicit purpose of this study was to make a case that these projects should be given more money. Thinking about the lessons of the Yom Kippur War and the growing parity in the European balance of power, Wohlstetter figured out at least a theoretical role for some of those projects, especially those involving highly accurate bombs and missiles.

"Based on the analysis," Wohlstetter wrote in the classified report, which was finished in February 1975, "it appears that non-nuclear weapons with near-zero miss may be technically feasible and militarily effective."

A bomb's ability to destroy a target depends on two things: its explosive power and its accuracy. There's a trade-off: the bigger the blast, the less need for an accurate weapon; the more accurate the weapon, the less need for a big blast. If small, non-nuclear weapons really could be guided to within a few feet of their targets ("near-zero miss," as Wohlstetter put it), they would have the same destructive power-the same ability to destroy a specific target-as a much larger nuclear bomb.

Wohlstetter was also intrigued by another set of ARPA programs called remotely piloted vehicles, or RPVs-small, unmanned aircraft, guided by remote control and loaded with a small bomb and a camera.

The idea was the brainchild of John Foster, a former Los Alamos physicist and at the time director of the Pentagon's research and engineering division. Foster got the idea from his enthusiasm for model airplanes. When Wohlstetter was writing his report, two RPVs, called Praerie and Calere, were in the early stages of development. Each vehicle weighed seventy-five pounds, was powered by a modified lawn mower engine, and could stay aloft for two hours while carrying a twenty-eight-pound payload.

Wohlstetter envisioned a way to link all these technologies-the RPVs, the highly accurate munitions, and a few other devices, some still hypothetical-into a single weapons system or a network of systems. A camera inside an RPV, he wrote, would scan the ground along its flight path and transmit the images back to base, where a commander would steer the vehicle to the target by remote control. The RPV would also carry an accurate bomb or missile, which the commander could fire-again, by remote control-when the plane came within range of the target. Both the vehicle and the bomb could be guided by radio, microwaves, or-in the more distant future-the signals from satellites using the Global Positioning System, the first of which were about to be launched while Wohlstetter was writing his paper. With GPS guidance, he calculated, bombs could land "less than 10 feet" from their targets.

The project's assignment had been to identify technologies that could give the president a variety of non-nuclear "strategic response options" to a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Here was such an option.

If the Soviets invaded West Germany, these accurate, long-range bombs and missiles could destroy targets well behind enemy lines-knocking out air bases, supply depots, follow-on echelons of Soviet tank formations, and so forth-and could thus disrupt and delay the Soviet offensive, giving NATO a chance to regroup and fight back.

In 1976, as a direct result of this study, ARPA began to develop a program called Assault Breaker, designed to launch "precision strikes" against moving targets deep behind enemy lines. The weapon system consisted of several components: "precision-guided" missiles, radar that could track enemy tanks and guide the missiles to their locations, as well as a data-transmission network that linked the weapons and the radar together. Bundled together, this "system of systems," as ARPA described it, matched Wohlstetter's concept almost exactly.