Cowboy, whether the term is used in admiration or derision, brings to mind a rugged individualist doing ‘his own thing’, as in the idealistic memories of the Old West. Collective, on the other hand, consists of individuals, or groups of individuals, with different skills banding together to achieve one or more objectives as in a bee hive. America’s greatness, in my opinion, derives from cowboys working within a framework of good policy. The Cold War (1947-1991) radically changed American Policy (Foreign, Domestic and Military) but it wasn’t without several rounds of fisticuffs amongst the cowboys.
Setting the table for this discussion is an excerpt from Norman Podhoretz’s 2012 article Is America Exceptional? 
“…First of all, unlike all other nations past or present, this one accepted as a self-evident truth that all men are created equal. What this meant was that its Founders aimed to create a society in which, for the first time in the history of the world, the individual’s fate would be determined not by who his father was, but by his own freely chosen pursuit of his own ambitions. In other words, America was to be something new under the sun: a society in which hereditary status and class distinctions would be erased, leaving individuals free to act and to be judged on their merits alone. There remained, of course, the two atavistic contradictions of slavery and the position of women; but so intolerable did these contradictions ultimately prove that they had to be resolved—even if, as in the case of the former, it took the bloodiest war the nation has ever fought….”
Cowboys and collectives came into sharp focus during the late 1980s with my assignment to
Johnston Atoll to support the base command through the Department of Energy (DOE) Management and Operating (M&O) contract. My job was to manage the technical operations; air field, marine operations, engineering, construction, water and electrical production and distribution, wastewater, petroleum, oil and lubricants, the RCRA Part B facility, and other duties as assigned. Johnston Atoll was a beehive of activity but certainly not a collective. Bear in mind that this atoll has three islands, the largest of which, Johnston Island, is ½-mile wide and a mile long.
The Air Force hosted the base and provided an Air Force Colonel as the base commander; he spoke with the authority of a one star general. The Army was constructing the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System (JACADS), the U.S. Army’s first chemical munitions disposal facility. The Army provided a Colonel to oversee this important project. In the event of a
Chemical munitions awaiting disposal at JACADS
chemical incident, the colonel spoke with the authority of a two star general and took over the island until someone with more rank actually arrived from Honolulu.
The Coast Guard ran the Long Range Aid to Navigation (LORAN) station, that was the precursor to the Global Positioning System (GPS) and they didn’t appear to report to anyone but they kept an account with DOE so the M&O contract provided support to them. Several military and other contractors showed up from time-to-time to perform tasks like cleaning up plutonium or building gymnasiums. NOAA had a station there and also did not appear to report to anyone but was supported through the DOE M&O contract.
The LORAN station on Johnston Atoll c.1963
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service person was there to take care of the birds and fish. The military and contractor personnel could be seriously disciplined if they killed a bird but the wildlife guy did it all the time. While I was there, a banded bird destroyed a jet engine during a landing of an Air Micronesia flight en route to Kwajalein and Majuro. The wildlife guy and the pilot almost came to blows over the incident and we, the DOE M&O contractor, had to feed, house and shelter about 60 people as well as several pigs and chickens for a couple of days in a
Wildlife sanctuary on Johnston Atoll
very confined space (we were, after all, a closed base that did little, if any, secret squirrel stuff) so a new engine could be flown in and mounted. When the Pacific Missile Range lit up for a mission, those people walked in and did their thing without so much as a by-your-leave. The turf battles on Johnston Island were awesome as a spectator sport. They also gave rise to my question, ‘How can this be happening?’ It made no sense at the time.
The answer to my question can be found in the history of Harry Truman, James Forrestal and
SecDef James Forrestal
the frame work of policy or lack thereof to enter the Cold War. Harry Truman became President upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt in April of 1945. By 1947, most of President Roosevelt’s cabinet and appointees were gone. One notable exception was James Forrestal, the Secretary of the Navy. Forrestal came from the ‘private’ sector. His father owned a construction company and he cut his teeth at Dillon, Read and Company, an investment banking house where he became a partner in 1923. He never finished college but he had a flair for management and administration and an excellent reputation. In 1940, Roosevelt tapped Forrestal to become his special assistant and later that year nominated him for the first Under Secretary of the Navy. Forrestal assumed the Secretary of Navy role in 1944 upon the death of Knox following a heart attack. Forrestal’s reputation as a highly capable administrator and manager continued to grow.
The end of WWII hostilities signaled an escalation of the voices of the American people to reduce the military. After all, the only standing military authorized by The Constitution is the Navy, which made the people correct; the time was right to ramp down. The politicians were in a swivel chair moving between their constituents’ calls for cutting the military and their natural inclination to keep it in place. WWII had provided the politicians an eye-opening, new view of the world and their power in it. Why would they want to give up all that good stuff? Harry Truman’s predilection for balanced budgets, Forrestal’s predilection for tidying-up and making processes work, and Congress’s desire to keep the good stuff generated by the WWII came together to drive the chaos of Johnston Island in the 1980s and the world we live today.
Although Forrestal was against joining the branches of the military together, when Truman asked him to do so, he agreed, and did the job well. Forrestal was prominent in developing the National Security Act of 1947 and the National Military Establishment (NME), which was to become the Department of Defense (DoD). Forrestal was, you see, conflicted. The
Forrestal, part Cowboy, part Borg
administrator in him wanted nice tidy processes but his cowboy cried for independence. In this case the administrator won. Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson was Truman’s first choice to head the new unified NME but Patterson wanted to return to the private sector. In spite of his resistance to the armed forces unification, Truman’s second nod was to Forrestal because of his knowledge of Defense infrastructure and dedication to government administrative processes. Forrestal accepted the challenge and, over the next several years, drove close coordination of defense and foreign policy as well as for the use of the National Security Council (NSC) as a facilitator. By 1950, the rudimentary processes were in place.
In 1948, the Soviets became the unwitting foil that allowed the U.S. to solidify its huge departure from past military and foreign policy. The Soviet Union completed its network of satellite nations in Eastern Europe, seized control in Czechoslovakia and blockaded land routes from the western zones of Germany to Berlin, forcing the U.S. and its allies to begin the Berlin airlift to supply the city, which lasted more than 10 months until Moscow relented. At the same time, in 1948 and 1949, the world went a bit nuts: war broke out in the brand new country of Israel; Congress approved the Marshall Plan, providing economic aid for 16 European nations; the Senate adopted the Vandenberg Resolution, encouraging the administration to enter into collective defense arrangements and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was born; and in 1949, in China, the Communists’ final victory over the Nationalists ushered in the People’s Republic of China. Nothing in the world would ever be the same again.
Back on the home front, Forrestal was still trying to convince the branches of the military to work together and Truman was still dedicated to keeping budgets down. Budget food fights drove the branches of the military to entrench themselves by designing intricate missions and needs for each service. A good example is the Navy and the Air Force dispute over delivery of atomic weapons. Forrestal discussed this, among other agenda items, with the Joint Chiefs at the Naval War College in 1948. They decided that the Air Force would have interim operational control of atomic weapons, but that “each service, in the fields of its primary missions, must have exclusive responsibility for planning and programming and the necessary authority.” For the Navy and Air Force, the Newport agreement meant that the Air Force should use any strategic bombing ability developed by the Navy, whatever that means. The result of this and similar budget food fights was the bedlam of the Johnston Island commands. Those of us with game cards could keep track of the command plays, those without would be lost.
Resistance to the collective is NOT futile.
As a nation, we remain conflicted about our role in the world. Either we look to the roots, The Constitution, for guidance or we wander into a wilderness using our machetes to make the trail as we go. At the moment we are lost. Our history goes unstudied by the vast majority of Americans even as it is criticized. There may be a clear vision of the U.S. role in the world around us but it is not a shared vision. Our national ‘will’ tracks our physics. It is relative. It is also dangerous to wander without order from one conflict to another. If the people, as individuals, will not grab the responsibility for our destiny, if we leave destiny in the hands of politicians, our nation will cease to be exceptional; we will become the collective. What a terrible loss to the world that would be.