...Thirty years before the arrival of the SUV, the Mc Mansion, the cups of latte macchiato, and obesity for a third of our children, Galbraith asked, "Is this, indeed, the American genius?"
Behind the satirical edge, in short, there was a darker indictment: America was, he warned ominously, fast becoming a place where "the production of the frivolous is viewed with pride, while creation of the significant, the lasting, and the civilizing is looked on with regret." As you know, this concern with what he deemed the crucial "social imbalance" of modern economies--and the role of modern economic theory in defending that imbalance as an inviolable matter of free "consumer choice"--became the basis for his fame, and the explanation why he has sold more than seven million copies of his books, making him the best-selling economist of the modern age (with the sole exception of Karl Marx in the old Communist countries, where presumably a percentage of Marx's sales involved something other than consumer choice).
But an economy devoted to the frivolous and ephemeral was only one part of Galbraith's concern. The additional and far more dangerous problem, as he had also made clear by the mid- 1950s, the danger which truly defined this new era was the Cold War, its attendant risks of nuclear annihilation--and the mindset on both sides of the Iron Curtain which perpetuated it. From a single atom bomb in 1945, U.S. and Soviet arsenals had in just 15 years grown to include tens of thousands of thermonuclear warheads, ready to be carried aloft by intercontinental missiles, by lumbering bombers and even by battlefield artillery. By 1961, the possibility of ending human life--all life, in fact--on the planet was no longer a fantastic nightmare for religious fanatics or science fiction writers but an ever-present possibility.
It would be comforting in some small partisan way to claim that support for this horrifying state of affairs was confined to just one political party--but we all know it was not; both Democrats and Republicans fully embraced the new national security state and its Doomsday weaponry. Moreover the doctrine of nuclear annihilation was not simply a military one but an essential component in domestic electoral competition. Kennedy had watched the Democrats lose the White House in 1952 and 1956 and was determined in 1960 not to be "out- nuked" by Richard Nixon. He had thus run on an alleged--and as we now know, spurious-- "missile gap," claiming that the Soviets had surpassed U.S. in deploying ICBMs that left only 15 minutes' warning before their deadly payloads could strike America.
Once in office Kennedy--who increasingly now wanted to back away from the exaggerated claims of nuclear war--found himself instead held prisoner not only by his own campaign rhetoric, but by the ambitions and beliefs of his advisors, men--and they were only men--who were part of this new and bipartisan "permanent national security state" that transcended the parties themselves. Thus in the wake of the Bay of Pigs fiasco--an invasion plan he had inherited from the Eisenhower administration, and about which he had always harbored the most serious doubts--Kennedy found himself that summer caught up publicly in the Berlin Crisis, in which his failed first meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna had led to new Soviet pressures on West Berlin, pressures that Kennedy had been forced to answer by putting the nation on military alert, calling for a nationwide civil defense program, and authorizing an immense supplemental Pentagon appropriation. To do otherwise, however, his National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy told him starkly at the time, was to be guilty of "appeasement."