Victor Navasky
Delacorte Professor of Journalism, Director of the George Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism
vic@thenation.com

A.B., Swarthmore; LL.B., Yale Law School. Founder, editor and publisher, Monocle; editor, The New York Times Magazine, columnist, The New York Times Book Review; editor, publisher and editorial director, The Nation; author, Kennedy Justice (1971), Naming Names (1981).

American Book Award-winning author Victor Navasky has been editor of The Nation since 1978 and its publisher since 1995. He is the longtime author of a weekly syndicated column on the publishing business, In Cold Print, and currently provides commentary for the radio program Marketplace. He is a former fellow at Harvard and Columbia Universities in politics and media studies.

The following is an explanation of the circumstances and motivation involved in the creation of

REPORT FROM IRON MOUNTAIN ON THE POSSIBILITY AND DESIRABILITY OF PEACE
by Victor Navasky


IN SPRING OF 1995 the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story on Report From Iron Mountain, a book that the Michigan Militia and other far-right groups regarded as a “sort of bible”—along with The Turner Diaries and Pat Robertson’s New World Order.

The Turner Diaries is a fantasy of right-wing revolution and the New World Order an expose, with antisemitic undertones, of how a cabal of international bankers runs the world. But Report From Iron Mountain, which purports to be a suppressed government report, is—as the Journal reported—a 1967 hoax perpetrated by writer Leonard Lewin.

In fact it was far more than a hoax; it was a satire, a parody, a provocation. Its acceptance by super-patriots and conspiracy theorists of the far right is roughly akin to the Irish Republican Army considering Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal proof that eating babies is official British policy.

The militia connection is only the latest chapter in the bizarre career of an idea that became a surprise best seller. The idea: Put the unpopular subject of conversion from a military to peacetime economy on the national agenda. Since I was present at the creation, let me try to explain.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s I was editor and publisher of a magazine of political satire called Monocle, which was born at Yale Law School as “a leisurely quarterly of political satire” (that meant we came out twice a year), but it eventually graduated, along with the rest of us. Although we later published one—and only one—issue as what we called a “monthly,” by the mid-sixties we called ourselves “a radical sporadical,” which meant that we came out like the United Nations police force—only in emergencies and only when we could meet our financial obligations.

Our official line was that “the views of our contributors, no matter how conflicting and contradictory, are the views of the editors.”

Unofficially, we were mostly left-liberal Democrats with anarcho-syndicalist pretensions. Typically, we ran the Gettysburg address in Eisenhowerese by Oliver Jensen (“I haven’t checked these figures yet, but eighty-seven years ago I think it was . . .”); when J.F.K. failed to integrate publicly assisted housing with “a stroke of the presidential pen,” as he had promised he would, we started the Ink for Jack campaign, urging our subscribers to deluge the White House with bottles of ink; and we even launched a comic strip with a peacenik-hero who said the magic equation and turned into a fat superman who looked suspiciously like the Hudson Institute’s Herman Kahn.

For several years we managed to defy George S. Kaufman’s adage that “satire is what closes on Saturday night,” but our last regular number appeared in 1965. By that time, however, our subscription price was “Ten issues for $7.50, or $5 for a lifetime subscription.” So in a metaphysical sense one might say that we are still in business, and this new edition of Report From Iron Mountain is, in a way, evidence that we are.

When Monocle ran out of money, as we saw it we had two choices: We could do the honorable thing, and in the great tradition of American capitalism declare bankruptcy, go into Chapter 11, and pay our creditors one cent on the dollar. Or, in the jargon of the early sixties, we could sell out. In fact, before we went out of the magazine business we ran a symposium where we asked one hundred celebrities to fill out a one-question questionnaire: “Why I Sold Out,” which is what we did, or tried to do.

We could write our personal books on our own time but, in line with the non-book fashion of the day, pay our debts to society and our creditors from un-books. The basic idea was to come up with bestselling book ideas, or rather non-book ideas, that required researchers rather than writers, and find trade book publishers willing to pay for and publish them. Then we’d hire researchers to research them and split the vast profits among all concerned. Since the idea was to make money and some of our best, i.e., worst, ideas were calculated to appeal to the largest possible audience, i.e., the lowest common denominator, we not only had no pride of authorship, we had shame of authorship, preferring to play an anonymous, behind-the-scenes role. In that capacity we were responsible for over thirty un-books on none of which did we put our name. Now it can be told that although they were published under such imprints as Simon & Schuster, Bantam Books, Putnam, Workman, and so forth, Monocle was the real perpetrator behind such classics as The Beatles, Words Without Music (transcripts of Beatles press conferences), Barbed Wires, a collection of famous funny telegrams (Did you know that when Robert Benchley arrived in Venice he sent a telegram saying, STREETS FULL OF WATER, PLEASE ADVISE?), The Illustrated Gift Edition of The Communist Manifesto (the cover blurb was “‘Revolutionary!’ V. I. Lenin”), The Algonquin Wits, dictionaries such as Drugs from A to Z, and so forth.

But as it turned out we were unsuited to follow the simple formula we had invented: Have other people research books based on cliched ideas that would appeal to the masses, while we clipped coupons. Call it hubris, call it boredom, or call it incompetence, I prefer to think that our instincts were insufficiently base. For instance, when a lawyer-friend told us that Delacorte Publishing had sold on supermarket counters alone more than two million copies of a little, 25-cent chap book called A Wife’s Rights, our immediate thought was to produce a quickie on Kid’s Rights. But the researcher we recruited claimed that it was impossible and perhaps even unethical to reduce the complexities of children’s rights to horn-book law one-liners. She persuaded us that the subject called for a real book and proceeded to research and write it, under the snappy title Up Against the Law. Of course it received respectful reviews and instead of selling in the millions, it sold in the tens of thousands.

Weary of non-books and wary of real books, we missed the opportunity Monocle had afforded to comment on the passing scene. And there was much on which to comment. Those were the days of the Vietnam war when our military and political leaders kept assuring us that there was “light at the end of the tunnel,” that our boys “will be home by Christmas.” With Grove Press as publisher, we did put out an entire book of quotations by L.B.J., General Westmoreland, and lesser evils predicting the imminent end of the war. Needless to say, the war—and the predictions—continued long after this particular un-book was published.

That book may have been a turning point for us, however. We continued to spawn collections, anthologies, and other ephemera but somehow they got more and more serious (dare I say distinguished?) and sold fewer and fewer copies. Under our aegis, James Boylan, the former editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, put together a thoroughly scholarly, annotated selection of articles from what was arguably the best newspaper this country ever produced, the old New York World. Two Berkeley grad students collected the most interesting essays written about the free speech movement and what followed, under the title Revolution at Berkeley, and Irving Howe wrote a smart and prescient introduction that anticipated the campus turmoils to come in the early seventies.

It was in that context that Report From Iron Mountain: On the Possibility and Desirability of Peace was born. The year was 1966 and one morning the New York Times featured a short news item about how the stock market had tumbled because of what the headline called a “Peace Scare.”

The news item had no byline, but it seemed to those of us around the editors’ table in the Monocle office worthy of Jonathan Swift, H. L. Mencken, Mark Twain. Around the table, in addition to myself were Marvin Kitman and Richard Lingeman. Kitman, our news managing editor, had been Monocle’s candidate for president in 1964. He ran in the Republican primary against Barry Goldwater as what he called “a Lincoln Republican.” Unlike Goldwater, whose platform only went back to McKinley, Kitman claimed to be the only real conservative because his platform went back one hundred years and called for unconditional surrender of the South, freeing the slaves and the reinforcement of the garrison at Fort Sumter. Lingeman, Monocle’s executive editor, had served as Kitman’s “holy ghostwriter,” and eventually moved on to a distinguished career as Theodore Dreiser’s and now Sinclair Lewis’s biographer and is my colleague at The Nation.

We, of course, naively believed that the prospect of peace would be as welcome on Wall Street as in Monocle’s low-rent Greenwich Village offices. All of which got us thinking. Suppose the government had appointed a task force to plan the transition from a wartime economy and the task force concluded that we couldn’t afford it because our entire economy was based on the preparation for war and without this threat it would collapse? The report therefore was suppressed.

In the spirit of Mencken’s famous hoax about the introduction of the bathtub to the U.S. (he claimed that only after Millard Fillmore introduced one into the White House did Americans, who previously regarded them as unsanitary, start to bathe regularly), we decided to publish the story of the suppression of this report.

To give the book credibility we needed an ultra-respectable mainstream publisher, but one with a sense of humor and the pluck to pull off a hoax. This publisher should also share our belief in the importance of putting the subject of economic conversion from a military to a peacetime economy on the national agenda.

Luckily for us the ideal candidate was at hand. Our collection of essays growing out of the free speech movement at Berkeley had been published by Dial Press, whose list included such prestigious writers as James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, and Richard Condon. As a result we came to know Dial’s maverick publisher, Richard Baron, and its imaginative editor-in-chief, author of a little-known novel called Welcome to Hard Times, one E. L. Doctorow, who subsequently came to fame as the author of The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, and other novels that seemed dedicated to the proposition that fiction could be a path to deeper truths than non-fiction. Sight unseen, they signed on and proposed listing the book in their catalogue as non-fiction, and not even telling their salesman about the hoax.

We had equal luck with our choice of author. We knew that Leonard Lewin, who had edited an anthology of political satire (under the pseudonym of L. L. Case), was a student of the genre. We knew that he cared passionately about issues of war and peace. And his wicked simultaneous parody of the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Eisenhower speechwriter Emmet Hughes’s memoir, The Ordeal of Power, which Monocle magazine had published under Lewin’s title “The Ordeal of Rhetoric,” showed him to be a sophisticated observer of what Ike had called in his farewell speech (written with the help of Hughes), the military-industrial complex.

There was only one problem. Lewin insisted that he couldn’t write the story of the suppression of the so-called report, until there was a report to be suppressed. And so, with the discreet input of his Monocle colleagues and folks ranging from Arthur Waskow, then at The Institute for Policy Studies in Washington (who was at work on what he called “A History of the Future”); W. H. Ferry of The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, California; John Kenneth Galbraith, who was back at Harvard after his stint as JFK’s Ambassador to India; and a small cadre of Monocle interns to track down original sources, Lewin wrote the report. Titled Report From Iron Mountain: On the Possibility and Desirability of Peace, it was a brilliant imitation of think-tankese rendered in impenetrable, bureaucratic prose, replete with obfuscating footnotes, all of them, except for two trick ones, to real if esoteric sources, in a variety of languages.

When we read the report, we all agreed that it had to be published in its entirety. Thus the report became the body of the book and the narrative of its suppression became what appears in the pages that follow as “Foreword,” “Background Information,” and “Statement by John Doe.”

As it happened, our carefully planned cover story (or “legend” as they say in the C.I.A.) paid off. When John Leo, then a reporter for the New York Times, spotted the non-fiction listing of the Report in Dial’s catalogue, he made the traditional round of calls to determine whether it was real or a hoax. At Dial he was told if he thought it was a fraud he should check the footnotes, virtually all of which, of course, checked out. No advance reviewer in the trade publications had been willing to label it a hoax, and the State Department’s Arms Control and Disarmament Agency carefully said, “To our knowledge no such special study group ever existed.” When he called the White House, instead of a denial, Leo got a no-comment—we’ll have-to-check-it-out-but-don’t-quote-us. (For all the L.B.J. White House knew, the J.F.K. White House had commissioned such a study.) The upshot was that the Times ran Leo’s story saying that the possible hoax was a possibly suppressed report on the front page. The headline, which itself could have been a parody of Times style, said “Some see book as hoax/Others take it seriously.”

Then, John Kenneth Galbraith, who had been writing a series of spoof articles for Esquire under the pseudonym Mark Epernay about a fictitious “psychometrist,” Professor Herschel McLandress (creator of the McLandress Dimension, a theory about how long people can go without thinking about themselves—e.g., Henry Kissinger achieved a coefficient of 6.0 minutes on the scale), wrote a review in Book World under the name of McLandress. The professor concluded, “As I would put my personal repute behind the authenticity of this document, so I would testify to the validity of its conclusions. My reservations relate only to the wisdom of releasing it to an obviously unconditioned public.” The review led to speculation that Galbraith himself had written Report From Iron Mountain. He called a press conference to deny he had anything to do with it. There were only two conceivable authors, he said: Dean Rusk or Clare Boothe Luce.

A number of people—most of them in government and regular readers of bureaucratese came to believe the Report was the real thing. Some reviewers praised it as a satire [see reviews by Eliot Fremont-Smith, U.S. News & World Report, Felix Kessler, and Robert Lekachman in Appendices 3, 4, 5, and 6, respectively]. Transaction magazine devoted the better part of an issue to a sober discussion of the questions the Report raised. The symposiasts, in addition to editor-in-chief Irving Louis Horowitz, included Kenneth Boulding, Herb Gans, and other distinguished policy-intellectuals. Most interesting were the reactions of Herman Kahn and Henry Kissinger, who took the satire personally and angrily dismissed * as sophomoric and idiotic, and Fletcher Prouty, a national security aide in the Kennedy Administration (the model for the Donald Sutherland character in Oliver Stone’s JFK) who said he believed it was the real McCoy. In 1972 Lewin confessed his authorship in the New York Times Book Review. He had intended, he wrote, “to caricature the bankruptcy of the think-tank mentality by pursuing its style of scientistic thinking to its logical ends.” He defended the hoax technique as the best way to gain attention for the book and its underlying message.

In a weird coda, Lewin discovered in the mid-1980s that the ultraright Liberty Lobby and others believing that the report was a government document, had disseminated thousands of copies without bothering to request permission and some of these copies were being sold through Liberty Lobby’s hate-filled newspaper, The Spotlight. He sued and the case was settled out of court, resulting in the withdrawal of thousands of copies of the bootleg edition, which now reside in Lewin’s living room. But well-worn copies continued to circulate along with a six-hour video based on the book.

One might have thought that the hoax, having been confessed, proclaimed, and even adjudicated, would, after twenty-five years, have been laid to rest. But no, like a radioactive substance, it seemed to have a half-life of its own. On May 9,1995, the Wall Street Journal ran a front page story headlined:

A Cause for Fear
Though Called a Hoax
.Iron Mountain’ Report
Guides Some Militias
Iron Mountain, it seemed, had returned. And now, to the loonies in the boonies, here was evidence of a government plot so sinister it would make Waco look like a panty raid. Aux arms, citoyens!

So why won’t Iron Mountain go away? Perhaps it’s partly because pied piper Lewin, with his perfect pitch, has stumbled on a netherworld for paranoids—the black hole of government secrecy and deception, where Kennedy assassinationologists today march in lockstep with white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and militiamen. By exposing their exaggerated fears and suspicions, he also taps into our own unresolved political conflicts.

But make no mistake about it. The contradictions in contemporary culture are not confined to paranoids. These days anti-interventionist alumni of the peace movement have found themselves on the same “side” as isolationists like Pat Buchanan in opposing U.S. intervention in Bosnia. Ditto civil libertarians and NRA activists in opposing measures like 1995’s so-called counter-terrorism bill. Iron Mountain speaks to a moment when it is unclear whether such convergences mean political realignment or simply signify confusion.

Given Report From Iron Mountain’s twisted trajectory, one hesitates to draw any “conclusions” from this tale. Here, however, are some interim reflections:

The cold war may be over, but the bloated military budget that undergirds Iron Mountain’s premise isn’t. When last heard from, the U.S. Senate had approved a $265.3 billion defense bill—$7.5 billion more than the Pentagon and the President had asked for.

Paranoid conspiracy theorists now believe that the quashing of the Iron Mountain report is itself a real government conspiracy because they are paranoid and conspiracy theorists. But their perspective can only be reinforced by the refusal of the government and particularly our intelligence agencies to release millions of still-classified documents, some of these pre-cold war relics dating back more than fifty years.

For libertarians, who occupy that weird l990s limbo where left meets right in their joint distrust of The State, Iron Mountain confirms their belief that too often claims of national security are a cloak for government lies, cover-ups, and bureaucratic disinformation.

Indeed, the faux neutrality of Iron Mountain’s narrative voice seems to have had the ironic effect of permitting a broad spectrum of constituencies to read their own meanings into Leonard Lewin’s text. In this way it may be said to have separate but equal resonance for military Keynesians who might see it as an “irresponsible”? “sophomoric”? satire and members of the Michigan militia and other groups who might draw on it for a different sort of ammunition.

Lewin’s skillful parody of think-tankese, the language of ponderous objectivity, and think-tank-think, which emphasizes a “value-free” approach to issues of great moral moment, underlines the folly of confusing moderation of tone with credibility and of assigning so-called value neutrality a sacrosanct place in public discourse.

The Report was a success in that it achieved its mission, which in this case was to provoke thinking about the unthinkable—the conversion to a peacetime economy and the absurdity of the arms race. But it was a failure, given that even with the end of the cold war we still have a cold war economy (which makes the Report all the more relevant today).

The Report also raised the perennial question of reality outdistancing satire. As Lewin later wrote, “The Pentagon Papers were not written by someone like me. Neither was the Defense Department’s Pax Americana study (how to take over Latin America).”

Finally, the fact that today’s ultraright conspiracy theorists, reinforced in their paranoia by governmental abuse and secrecy, take Lewin’s scenario as seriously as the think-tankers take themselves is, of course, the scariest proposition of all. Every time Lewin or others in on the hoax confess, the conspiracy theorists regard it as further proof of a cover-up.

When I wrote about this phenomenon in The Nation I said that perhaps the only way to put a stop to this speculation is to tell them: “Guys, you’re right! Report From Iron Mountain is a real document. Remember: You read it here in the pro-Commie, pro-government, pro-Jewish, anti-American Nation.”

But the sad truth may be that the jargonized prose, worst-case scenario thinking, and military value-laden assumptions that Lewin so artfully skewers are still with us. And if that is true, the joke is not on the Michigan and other militias. It is on the rest of us, and it’s no longer so funny.

Victor Navasky
November 1995