Hyperpower Tottering Toward History’s Compost Bin.
How It Could Happen
“Dreams are today's answers to tomorrow's questions.” -Edgar Cayce
By John Michael Greer
This week’s post is the last of five parts of a fictional narrative tracing out a scenario of American imperial defeat and collapse. As a bankrupt and divided nation stumbles toward its destiny, the question that remains is whether anything can be salvaged from the American experiment.
Over the course of this year, my posts here on The Archdruid Report
have tried to outline the trajectory of America’s global empire and explore the
reasons why that trajectory will likely come to a sudden stop in the near
To bring the issue down out of the realm of abstraction and put the reasons
in the context of history as lived, I’ve returned to the toolkit of narrative
fiction, and this and the next four posts will sketch out a scenario of American
imperial defeat and collapse. The narrative takes place at some unspecified
point in the next two decades; it’s probably necessary to say outright that is
not how I think the end of America’s empire will happen, simply one way
that it could happen -- and thus a model that may help expose some of
the vulnerabilities of the self-proclaimed hyperpower currently tottering toward
history’s compost bin.
The news of the latest Tanzanian deepwater oil discovery broke on an
otherwise sleepy Saturday in March. Thirty years before, a find of the same size
might have gotten two column inches somewhere in the back pages of a few
newspapers of record, but this was not 30 years ago. In a world starved for oil,
what might once have been considered a modest find earned banner headlines.
It certainly loomed large in the East Wing of the White House, where the
president and his advisers held a hastily called meeting that evening. “The
Chinese already have it wrapped up,” said the Secretary of Energy. “Tanzania’s
in their pocket, and there are CNOOC people... (CNOOC was the Chinese National
Overseas Oil Corporation, the state-owned firm that spearheaded China’s quest
for foreign oil) ...all over the place on site and in Dar es Salaam.”
“Is it close enough to Kenyan waters ... ”
“Not a chance, Mr. President. It’s 200 nautical miles away from the disputed
zone, and that last clash with the Tanzanians isn’t something Nairobi wants to
“Dammit, we need that oil.” The president turned and walked over to the
He was right, of course, and “we” didn’t just refer to the United States.
Jameson Weed won the White House the previous November with a campaign focused
with laser intensity on getting the United States out of its long and worsening
economic slump. Winning the country a bigger share of imported oil was the key
to making good on that promise, but that was easier said than done; behind what
was left of the polite fiction of a free market in petroleum, most oil that
crossed national borders did so according to political deals between producer
countries and those consuming countries strong and wealthy enough to compete.
These days, more often than not, the United States lost out -- and the impact of
that reality on Weed’s upcoming reelection campaign was very much on the minds
of everyone in the room.
“There’s one option,” said the president’s national security adviser. “Regime
President Weed turned back from the window to face the others. The Secretary
of Defense cleared his throat. “Sooner or later,” he said, “the Chinese are
going to stand and fight.”
The national security adviser gave him a contemptuous look. “They don’t
dare,” she said. “They know who’s boss, and it’s too far from their borders for
their force projection capacity, anyway. They’ll back down the way they did in
The president glanced from one to the other. “It’s an option,” he said. “I
want a detailed plan on my desk in two weeks.”
Regime change wasn’t as simple as it used to be. That was the sum of scores
of conversations in meeting rooms in the Pentagon and the CIA headquarters in
Langley as the plan came together. Gone were the easy days of the “color
revolutions,” when a few billion dollars funneled through Company-owned NGOs
could buy a mass uprising and panic an unprepared government into collapse. The
second-generation strategies that worked so well in Libya and half a dozen other
places -- backing the manufactured uprising with mercenaries, special forces,
and a no-fly zone -- stopped working in turn once target governments figured out
how to fight it effectively. Now it usually took ground troops backed up by air
power to finish the job of replacing an unfriendly government with a compliant
Still, it was a familiar job by this point, and the officials in charge got
the plan put together in well under the two weeks the president had given them.
A few days later, when it came back signed and approved, the wheels started
turning. Money flowed to CIA front organizations all over East Africa; Company
assets in Tanzania began recruiting the ambitious, the dissatisfied, and the
idealistic to staff the cadres that would organize and lead the uprising;
elsewhere, mercenaries were hired and the usual propaganda mills went into
action. The government of Kenya, the nearest American client state, was
browbeaten into accepting American troops on its border with Tanzania, and a
third carrier strike group was mobilized and sent on its way to join the two
already within range.
It took only a few weeks for the government of Tanzania to figure out that
its recent good luck had put it in the crosshairs of American power. One
afternoon in early May, after a detailed briefing from his intelligence chief,
the president of Tanzania summoned the Chinese ambassador to a secret meeting,
and told him bluntly, “If you abandon us now we are lost.” The ambassador
promised only to relay the message to Beijing, but he did so within minutes of
returning to the Chinese embassy, and included a detailed and urgent commentary
of his own.
Three days later, a dozen men sat down around a table in a conference room in
Beijing. A staff member poured tea and disappeared. After an hour’s discussion,
one of the men at the meeting said, “What is it that the Americans say? ‘Draw a
line in the sand?' I propose that this is the time and place to do that.”
A quiet murmur of agreement went around the table. In the days that followed,
a different set of officials drew up a very different set of plans.
The port at Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s capital and biggest city, was a busy
place, thronged with oil tankers carrying black gold to China and its allies,
and container ships bringing goods of every description, mostly from China, for
the booming Tanzanian economy. In the bustle, no one paid much attention to the
arrival of a series of plain shipping containers from Chinese ports, which were
offloaded from an assortment of ordinary container ships and trucked to half a
dozen inconspicuous warehouse districts along the coast between Dar es Salaam
and the northern port city of Tanga. CIA agents watching for signs of a Chinese
response missed them completely.
More generally, the number of container shipments to Tanzania and half a
dozen other Chinese client states in Africa ticked up slightly -- not enough to
rouse suspicions, but then nobody in the United States learned how many African
companies found themselves facing unexpected delays in getting the Chinese
merchandise they had ordered, so that other cargoes took the space that would
have been theirs. Nor did anyone in the United States worry much about the
increased number of young Chinese men who flew to Africa during the four months
before the war began. U.S. intelligence did notice them, and their arrival
sparked a brief debate at Langley -- military observers, one faction among U.S.
intelligence advisors insisted, there to snoop on American military technology;
military advisors, another faction claimed, there to assist the Tanzanian army
against the American forces that were already gathering in Kenya.
Both factions were wrong. Most of the tight-lipped young men went to ground
near those same warehouse districts between Dar es Salaam and Tanga, where the
contents of those shipping containers were assembled, tested, and readied.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, the Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)
shifted six fighter wings, equipped with some of China’s most advanced aircraft,
to Central Asian bases. The Chinese government had announced that it would be
holding joint military exercises that August with Russia, and so the satellite
photos of Chengdu J-20 fighters parked in the deserts of Turkestan got an
incurious glance or two in Langley, and went into filing cabinets.
After years of budget battles on Capitol Hill, the U.S. military was not
quite so powerful or so swift to deploy as it had been in the last years of the
twentieth century. Only two of the remaining eight carrier strike groups -- CSGs,
in naval jargon -- were on station at any time, one in the western Pacific and
one shuttling back and forth between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean;
transport was a growing challenge by sea or air, and borrowing airliners from
the civilian air fleet, a mainstay of late twentieth century Pentagon planning,
was less simple to arrange now that air travel was only for the rich again.
Still, the units assigned to the first phase of the Tanzanian operation -- the
101st Airborne, the 6th Air Cavalry, and the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions --
were used to rounding up transport in a hurry and heading off on no notice to
the far corners of the globe.
The first units of the 101st Airborne landed at Nairobi in the middle of May,
when the heavy rains were over and the first riots were breaking out in Dar es
Salaam. By the time President Weed gave his famous speech in Kansas City on June
20, denouncing atrocities he claimed had been committed by the Tanzanian
government and proclaiming in ringing terms America’s unstinting readiness to
support the quest for freedom around the world, all four divisions were settling
into newly constructed bases in the upland country south of Kajiado, not far
from the Tanzanian border. Alongside them, logistics staff and civilian
contractors swarmed, getting ready for the two armored divisions, on their way
from Germany by ship, who would fill out the land assault force, and the bulk of
the supplies for the assault, which were on their way by sea from Diego Garcia.
Meanwhile three CSGs, headed by the nuclear carriers USS Ronald Reagan, USS
John F. Kennedy, and USS George Washington, headed at cruising speed toward a
rendezvous point in the western Indian Ocean, where they would meet the ships
carrying the armored divisions from Germany and a dozen big supply ships from
the Maritime Prepositioning Squadron based on Diego Garcia. Two Air Force
fighter wings had already been assigned to the operation, and would arrive just
before the carriers reached operational range; they and carrier-based planes
would then take out the Tanzanian air force and flatten military targets across
the country during the two weeks the armored divisions would need to land, join
the rest of the force, and begin the ground assault. It was a standard plan for
the quick elimination of the modest military forces of a midsized Third World
country; its only weakness was that the U.S. force was no longer facing a
midsized Third World country.
In times of peace, August and September are the peak tourist season in East
Africa; inland from the always humid coast, the climate is cool and dry, and the
wide plains of the interior are easy to travel. Since plains in cool dry weather
are among the best places on earth for an assault by tanks and attack
helicopters, these were also the months the Pentagon’s planners assigned for
Operation Blazing Torch, the liberation of Tanzania. Briefing papers handed to
President Weed in late July sketched out the final details, and he nodded and
signed off on the final orders for the invasion. The Secretary of Defense looked
on from the other side of the room with a silent frown. He had tried several
times to bring up the small but real chance that the Chinese might retaliate,
and had his advice dismissed by Weed and mocked to his face by the president’s
national security adviser and Vice President Gurney. As soon as this thing was
over, he told himself for the fifteenth time, he would hand in his resignation.
Outside the White House windows, barely visible in the distance, a small band
of protesters kept up a desultory vigil in the free-speech zone set aside for
them. Pedestrians hurried past, ignoring the chanted slogans and the protest
signs. It was another brutally hot summer day in Washington DC, part of the “new
normal” that the media talked about when they couldn’t avoid mentioning the
shifting climate altogether. Out beyond the Beltway, half the country was
gripped by yet another savage drought; the states of Iowa and Georgia had just
suspended payment on their debts, roiling the financial markets; eyes across the
southeast turned nervously toward a tropical storm, poised off the Windwards,
that showed every sign of turning into the season’s first big hurricane.
What many perceptive observers recalled afterward was the sullen mood that
gripped the country that summer. Only the media and the most shameless of
national politicians tried to pretend that the approaching war with Tanzania was
about anything but oil; the president’s approval rating drifted well below 25%,
which was still three times that of Congress and well above that of any credible
candidate the other party had to offer; the usual clichés spewed from the usual
pundits, but the only people who were listening were the pundits themselves.
Across the nation and across the political spectrum, the patience of the
American people was visibly running short.
Those who were dissatisfied had plenty of reasons. The intractable economic
slump that had gripped the country since 2008 showed no sign of lifting, despite
repeated bailouts of the financial industry that were each proclaimed as the key
to returning prosperity, and repeated elections in which each candidate claimed
to have fresh new ideas and then pursued the same failed policies once in
office. The fracking boom of the early twenty-teens was practically ancient
history; energy prices were high, and straggling higher; gasoline bumped against
$7 a gallon that summer before slumping most of the way back to $6.50. None of
these things were new, but they seemed to infect the national mood more
powerfully than before. Shortly they would help spark an explosion -- but there
would be other explosions first.
At the end of July, the invasion task force assembled in the Indian Ocean
almost 2,000 miles east of the Kenyan coast. Fleet Admiral Julius T. Deckmann,
commanding the task force, made sure everything was in order before giving the
orders to sail west. A career officer with half a dozen combat assignments
behind him, Deckmann had learned to trust his intuition, and his intuition told
him that something was not right. From the bridge of the USS George Washington,
his flagship, he considered the assembled fleet, shook his head, and ordered
reconnaissance drones sent up. Real-time images from U.S. spy satellites showed
nothing out of the ordinary; data from the AWACS plane circling high overhead
confirmed that, and so did the drones, once data started coming in from them.
Deckmann’s unease remained as days passed uneventfully and the task force neared
The fleet reached its assigned position off the Kenyan coast on schedule.
Final news came via secure satellite link from Washington: the Air Force fighter
wings had arrived and were ready for action; the Tanzanian Freedom Council, the
puppet government-in-exile manufactured by the State Department, had called “the
nations of the world” to liberate their country, a plea that everyone knew was
directed at one nation alone; the CIA-led mercenaries who spearheaded the
second, violent phase of the uprising had withdrawn from Dar es Salaam, leaving
the local cadres to their fate, and were moving toward the Kenyan border to open
the way for the invasion. Deckmann made sure every ship in his fleet was ready
as the sun set in red haze over the distant African coast.
Very few of those involved in the war got much sleep that last night before
the shooting began. On the three carriers, and at two newly constructed
airfields in southern Kenya, aircrews worked through the dark hours to get their
planes ready for battle, unaware that other aircrews were doing the same thing
thousands of miles away in Central Asia. Soldiers of the two armored divisions
that had been brought down from Germany prepared for a landing in Mombasa most
of them would not live to see. In Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, presidents met with
their cabinets and then headed for heavily guarded bunkers; elsewhere in the
world, heads of state read intelligence briefings and braced themselves for
Two hours before the East African dawn, the waiting ended. Two people ended
it. One was Admiral Deckmann, barking out the orders that sent the first
fighter-bombers roaring off the deck of the George Washington and the first
Tomahawk cruise missiles blazing skywards. The other was an officer in a Chinese
command center deep in central Asia, who watched the planes take off and the
missiles launch, courtesy of a high-altitude observation drone -- one of three
that had been following the George Washington since it went through the Suez
Canal, and were now stationed high above the fleet. As infrared images showed
planes and missiles hurtling toward Tanzania, the officer typed rapidly on a
keyboard and then hit enter twice. With the second click of the enter key, the
Chinese response began.
Part Two: Nemesis
This week's post is the second of five parts of a fictional narrative tracing
out a scenario of American imperial defeat and collapse.
As already mentioned, this is scenario rather than prophecy -- an outline of
what could happen rather than a prediction of what will happen, and thus an
exploration of some of the major vulnerabilities in America’s faltering empire.
It may also be worth saying that no real aircraft carriers were harmed in the
making of this narrative.
The missiles and fighter-bombers launched from the fleet were the second wave
of the American assault, not the first. Attack helicopters from Kenyan bases
took off a few minutes later, but went in ahead to target Tanzania’s air
defenses. Their timing was precise; by the time the first U.S. jets crossed into
Tanzanian airspace, the four military radar stations that anchored the northern
end of Tanzania’s air defense system were smoking rubble. Real-time satellite
images brought news of the successful strike to Admiral Deckmann and his staff
aboard the USS George Washington, and to President Weed and his advisers in the
situation room in the White House.
Those images were on the screens when the whole U.S. military satellite
system suddenly went dark.
In U.S. bases around the world, baffled technicians tried to reconnect with
the satellite network, only to find that there was no network with which to
reconnect. NORAD reported that all the satellites were still in their orbits and
showed every sign of still being operational, but none would respond to signals
from ground stations or send data back down. Analysis quickly ruled out a
technical failure, which left only one option; the president’s national security
adviser glanced up from a hurriedly compiled briefing paper outlining that one
option, to find the Secretary of Defense regarding her with a level gaze. She
turned away sharply and snapped an order to one of her aides.
Analysts long before the war had noted China’s intense interest in
anti-satellite technology. After the war was over, however, it turned out that
what took out the U.S. satellite system was not advanced technology but
old-fashioned espionage. Chinese agents more than a decade earlier had managed
to infiltrate the National Reconnaissance Office, the branch of the U.S.
intelligence community that managed the nation’s spy satellites, and data
obtained by those agents enabled Chinese computer scientists to hack into the
electronic system that controlled U.S. military satellites in orbit and shut the
whole network down, robbing U.S. units around the world of their communications
and reconnaissance capabilities. Within minutes, cyberwarfare teams were at
work, but it took them most of a day to get a first trickle of data coming in,
and more than a week to get all the satellites fully operational again -- and
that was time the U.S. invasion force no longer had.
The Chinese technicians who had slipped into Tanzania in the months before
the war had strict orders that no action was to be taken under any circumstances
until the United States began active hostilities. The terse radio message
announcing the destruction of the northern radar stations removed that factor.
The crews knew that they might only have minutes before American bombs began
falling on them. Their mission was precisely defined by the logic of “use it or
lose it,” and so everything that had arrived in the shipping containers went
into the air in well under ten minutes.
Survivors’ accounts of what happened aboard the naval task force over the
next hour are confused and in places contradictory, but apparently shipboard
radars detected nearly a thousand targets suddenly airborne on the southwestern
horizon. At least half of those were false echoes, electronic decoys produced by
Chinese “spoofing” technology, and many of the remainder were physical decoys
meant to draw fire away from the supersonic cruise missiles that constituted the
real attack. Even by the most conservative estimates, though, there were at
least 200 of the latter. The task force had some of the best antimissile
defenses in the world, but naval strategists had determined decades beforehand
that a sufficiently massive attack could be sure of getting through.
Those cold mathematics worked themselves out in a chaos of explosions,
burning fuel, floating debris, and dead and dying sailors and soldiers. Of 41
ships in the task force, three made it safely to harbor in Mombasa, and eight
more -- including one of the troopships -- were able, despite damage, to fight
their way to the Kenyan coast and get surviving crews and passengers ashore. The
others were left shattered and burning, or went to the bottom. The fate of the
three carriers was typical: the John F. Kennedy took three cruise missiles in
close succession and sank with nearly all hands; the Ronald Reagan was hit by
two, caught fire, and was abandoned by its crew; the George Washington was hit
astern by one, staggered in toward the coast despite crippling damage to its
steering systems, and ran onto a sandbar near the Kenyan shore. A Japanese news
photographer on assignment snapped a picture of the abandoned ship -- broken,
ghostlike, the deck tilted nearly into the surf on one side -- and that
photograph, splashed over the media worldwide in the following days, became for
many people the definitive image of the East African War.
Long before the George Washington reached its final resting place in the
sands off Kilindini, U.S. forces on the scene were doing their best to respond.
The loss of satellite intelligence did not prevent the launching points for the
cruise missile attack from being spotted from the air by drones, and U.S.
fighters hurtled south to hammer them; only the orders that scattered each of
the Chinese crews the moment their last cruise missile went up kept them from
suffering horrific casualties, and as it was, more than a thousand Tanzanian
civilians were killed/ More than half the planes on the three carriers had taken
off before the carriers were put out of action, furthermore, and those that made
it safely to Kenyan territory were refueled and put to use immediately, carrying
out punishing strikes against Tanzanian military and political targets.
Back in Washington DC, President Weed ordered a media blackout on the
disaster. His press secretary announced merely that the task force had been
attacked by missiles, and that details would be coming later. That night,
meeting with his advisers and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he
reviewed what was known about the fate of the task force, frowned, and muttered
an expletive. “They bloodied our nose, no question,” he said. “If we cave in,
though, we’re screwed. We’ve got to reinforce the troops in Kenya and proceed
with the operation. I want a plan on my desk first thing tomorrow.”
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs that year was Admiral Roland Waite, a
patrician New Englander with Navy ties going back to an ancestor who sailed with
John Paul Jones. “You’ll have it, sir,” he said. “If I may suggest, though--. ”
The president motioned for him to continue.
“A plan for extracting our forces, sir. Just in case."
“We can’t.” The president all at once looked older than his 60 years. “If we
cave in, we’re screwed. The whole country is screwed.”
The plan was on the president’s desk at 6 a.m.: a sketchy but viable draft of
an airlift operation, using most of the Pentagon’s available air transport
capacity to get troops and supplies from Europe and the Persian Gulf to Kenya in
a hurry. By the time it reached the Oval Office, though, the unfolding situation
had already rendered it hopelessly obsolete.
The planes took off from airbases in Central Asia as soon as word came that
the enemy satellite network was disabled. A flurry of secret diplomacy in the
months before the war had cleared flight paths through Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan,
and Iran, and positioned tankers for in-flight refueling in the latter country;
Iranian civilians waved and cheered as the planes roared by, guessing their
destination. As ships burned and sank off the Kenyan coast, six Chinese fighter
wings were on their way to Tanzania, with more to follow.
Their route was not quite direct, since Tanzania was under heavy air attack
by the Americans and thus could provide no safe airfields. Instead, an airbase
in the Chinese client state of South Sudan served as a final staging area. More
shipping containers had ended up there, and some of the tight-lipped young men
as well. Fresh pilots climbed aboard the fighters, fuel tanks were topped up,
aircrews loaded and armed weapons, and the first wave of the air counterattack
hurtled southeast into Kenyan airspace. American radar crews on the ground
misidentified them at first as friendly craft, delaying an effective response
for a few minutes. The moment the newcomers began attack runs on one of the
American airbases, though, that mistake was cleared up, and U.S. fighters
already in the air pounced on the Chinese fighters while those on the ground
roared up to join the fight.
An hour into the air battle, the American commanders on the scene and in the
Persian Gulf were clear on three things. The first was that the planes and their
pilots were Chinese, even though every plane had had the red star of the Peoples
Liberation Army Air Force carefully painted over with the green roundel and
white torch of the Tanzanian Air Force. The second was that, at least at the
moment, the Chinese had the advantage of numbers. That was less of a problem
than it might have been, since the United States had plenty of fighter wings
available to join the conflict, and four more were already being shifted to
Persian Gulf airfields within striking distance of the combat zone.
The third realization, though, was the troubling one: the Chinese pilots were
at least as good as their American counterparts, and their planes were better.
Both U.S. fighter wings in Kenya flew the F-35 Lightning II, the much ballyhooed
Joint Strike Fighter, which had been designed to fill every possible fighter
role in the NATO air services. That overambitious goal meant that too many
compromises had been packed into one airframe, and the result was a plane that
was not well suited to any of its assigned missions. The Chinese J-20s had no
such drawbacks; faster and more heavily armed than the F-35s, they had a single
role as a long-range air superiority fighter and they carried it out with
aplomb. By the end of the first day, though both sides had been bloodied, U.S.
losses were nearly half again those of the Chinese force.
News of the arrival of the Chinese fighters forced the plans for resupplying
the four U.S. divisions in Kenya by air into indefinite hold. “Until we have air
superiority back,” the Secretary of Defense explained to Weed and the other
members of the team, “there are hard limits to what we can do. Even if we send
them with fighter cover, the big transports are sitting ducks for their
The president nodded. “How soon can we expect to retake control of the air?”
“Within a week, if everything goes well. I’ve got four fighter wings on the
way in tomorrow, and four more following them in two days.”
“What about the airbases in South Sudan?” the president’s national security
adviser asked. “Those should get hit, hard.”
“That would mean,” the Secretary said, picking his words carefully, “widening
the war to include another Chinese ally. Maybe more than one, if the other
African countries in their camp get involved.”
“They’re already in,” President Weed growled. “Diego Garcia’s in range; I
want a B-52 strike on the South Sudan bases as soon as possible.”
Two days later, a mob sacked the U.S. Embassy in South Sudan. The staff
barely escaped by helicopter from the roof. The B-52 raids the night before had
cratered one of the two Chinese airbases, but also flattened two nearby villages
and killed several hundred people. Across Africa, Chinese allies took turns
denouncing America’s actions in East Africa and threatening war against Kenya,
while the few remaining American allies lay low.
The denunciations were for show. The real decision had been made more than
three months earlier, as Tanzanian and Chinese diplomats made secret visits to
half a dozen Chinese-allied nations in Africa, explaining what America was about
to do and why it mattered. The prospect of a Chinese military response made a
difference this time; so did China’s offer to cover the costs of the plan being
proposed; so did the cold awareness, inescapable as one head of state after
another stared at maps and briefing papers, that if the Americans overwhelmed
Tanzania, any of China’s other African allies might be next. One after another,
they signed onto the plan, and began an indirect process of troop movements.
As news media flashed word of the South Sudan riots around the world,
accordingly, the ambassador from Tanzania presented himself at the Kenyan
presidential palace to deliver a note. Despite the studied courtesies with which
it was delivered, the note was blunt. Since Kenya had allowed a hostile power to
use its territory and airspace to attack Tanzania, it stated, the Tanzanian
government was declaring war on Kenya -- and over the next few hours, six other
African nations did the same.
Three hours before dawn the next morning, an artillery bombardment silenced
the animal and bird sounds of the coastal forest on the Tanzania-Kenya border,
some 50 miles south of Mombasa. Tanzanian troops surged over the border at first
light, backed by the first contingents from the other members of the
Chinese-supported coalition and by a wave of Chinese ground-attack aircraft. By
day’s end, forward scouts riding the armed light trucks that African armies call
“technicals” were halfway to Mombasa, Kenya’s second city and largest port.
That night, Kenyan and American military officials held a hastily called
meeting in Nairobi, chaired by the Kenyan president. The original American plan
of action was fit only for the shredders, everyone recognized that, and the
issue at stake now was not the liberation of Tanzania but the survival of the
U.S.-friendly Kenyan government. The next morning, after hurried consultations
with Washington via the secure diplomatic line from the U.S. embassy, the four
American divisions left their bases and headed toward Mombasa, running up
against Coalition forces two days later.
Under normal circumstances, the U.S. forces would likely have seized the
advantage and the victory, but these were not normal circumstances. The air war
continued, but the Chinese edge was widening; the U.S. air bases in Kenya had
been bombed repeatedly, and efforts to resupply them by air even at a minimal
level were running into increasingly fierce Chinese fighter attacks. Furthemore,
the four U.S. divisions had only part of their normal equipment -- the rest was
at the bottom of the Indian Ocean -- and the troops they were facing included
seasoned veterans of some of Africa’s most bitter wars.
The major issue, however, was air superiority. The U.S. military had made air
superiority so central to its military doctrine, and had achieved it so
consistently in past campaigns, that nobody had any clear idea how to fight and
win a battle without it. Generals who were used to aerial reconnaissance and
lieutenants who were used to being able to call in air strikes were both left
floundering when these and many other mainstays of the American way of combat
were no longer available. As the Chinese pressed their control of the air
further and ferried in more ground-attack aircraft, U.S. forces had to face the
unfamiliar threat of air strikes, and U.S. generals had to cope with the fact
that it was their movements that were being spotted from the air. Finally, there
was the impact on morale: troops who had been taught nearly from their first
days in boot camp that air superiority guaranteed victory were unprepared to
fight against an enemy that had taken air superiority away from them.
Which of the many factors decided the Battle of Mombasa remains an issue for
military historians. Still, the results were not in doubt. After a week of hard
fighting, Coalition forces took Mombasa and began to advance up the main highway
toward Nairobi, while the battered U.S. divisions and their Kenyan allies
retreated before them. The Kenyan president fled to Kisumu, in the far west of
the country, with his mistress and his cabinet. Jets still screamed south from
U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf to tangle with Chinese fighters based in half a
dozen African countries, and land-based cruise missiles and B-52s from Diego
Garcia pounded anything that looked vaguely like a military target, but it was
hard for anyone to miss the fact that the United States was losing the war.
Part Three: To The Brink
This week's post is the third of five parts of a fictional narrative tracing
out a scenario of American imperial defeat and collapse. As the war in Kenya
reaches a climax, the action shifts to the United States -- and to a president
who has his back to the wall and very few options left.
Back in the United States, few people had any clear sense of how bad the
situation had become. The major news media, as they had done for decades,
accepted whatever came from the White House and the Pentagon at face value.
Internet news sites contradicted the official story in every detail, but the
internet’s low signal to noise ratio made an accurate picture hard to assemble.
Still, cracks were spreading in the wall of denial. The photo of the USS George
Washington wrecked and abandoned on a Kenyan sandbar was an internet sensation;
two members of the House of Representatives had called for hearings on the war,
though their request was stonewalled by the House leadership; through the sullen
air of late summer, a sense was beginning to spread that something had gone very
In the White House, President Weed did not need to guess. Reports from the
U.S. forces in Kenya came in daily via the diplomatic line; when Nairobi fell,
after a bitter three-day battle near Konza, a new line was jerry-rigged from
Kisumu in the far west of the country. Most of the news was bad. The Chinese had
brought in more planes, as well as air-defense systems that were making B-52
raids from Diego Garcia risky -- two of the bombers had been shot down by
surface-to-air missiles already. Meanwhile, there was no way to get supplies in
to the American forces and their Kenyan allies; another fleet could not be sent
as long as Chinese cruise missiles might be waiting for them, and the loss of
air superiority made airlifts equally problematic.
“We tried to get Predator drones in to hit their air defense radar, but they
were spotted and taken out,” the DCI -- Director of Central Intelligence, the
head of the CIA -- was saying. “Chinese technology is, well, as good as ours
these days.” What he was not saying, Weed knew, was that Chinese technology was
better than its U.S. equivalents these days, and half a dozen other countries
had the same advantage. The reason wasn’t a mystery, either; most of the
officials in the room, starting with Weed himself, had taken donations now and
then in exchange for promoting or approving programs that were far more
profitable to their manufacturers than they were useful to the U.S. military.
“The Chinese this, the Chinese that,” said the president’s national security
adviser. “We’ve talked about them every single day since this started. We need
to do something about them.” The vice president, sitting next to her, nodded,
and President Weed tilted his head toward her, listening.
All at once, the Secretary of Defense decided that he’d had enough. He
slammed his folder of briefings down on the table, pushed his chair back, and
stood up. “You’re crazy. I mean that in all seriousness. Since day one you’ve
acted as though nothing could go wrong, and when it does, all you can think of
is doubling down.” He turned to the president. “Jim, you’ll have my written
“Bill,” said Weed, “for God’s sake, not now!”
“Personal reasons,” said the Secretary. “Health concerns. I’ll give you all
the plausible deniability you want, but I’m through.” The door slammed behind
him a moment afterward.
Marines on perimeter guard spotted the messengers first, walking up the main
road from Kitale under a white flag. Word came by radio a few minutes later to
GHQ in the town of Endebess further west, under the slopes of soaring Mount
Elgon. The reply came back at once: get a technical and bring them in. The
Marines had a few of the pickups left, though fuel was scarce, like ammo, food,
everything else; they managed to scrounge enough gasoline for the trip, and sent
the messengers on their way.
The technical skidded to a stop in front of a commandeered primary school not
long thereafter. Lieutenant General Jay Seversky, the American commander,
greeted the messengers glumly.
After introductions, the Tanzanian colonel who led the group said, “I think
you know why I am here, General. You and your men have fought very well, but --
” He shrugged. “There is only so much a man can do. The Coalition command has
ordered a final assault on your positions. I will not say when, but soon. Maybe
you will survive that. Maybe you will survive the next one, too. But -- ”
Another shrug. “The matter is settled; it is merely a question of how many more
lives are lost.”
Seversky nodded, once. “I assume you’ve got terms to suggest.”
“Of course.” The colonel pulled an envelope from inside his jacket and handed
it to him. Seversky opened it, glanced over the sheet of paper, and nodded
again. “I’ll need time to consult with my staff.”
“Of course,” the colonel said again. “Twenty-four hours? I think we can allow
When the men had gone, Seversky took the sheet of paper back inside. The
remaining officers of his staff and the commanders of the four divisions were
waiting. He handed the paper to the nearest, waited until it had circled the
“Anything from Washington?” This from Tom Blumenthal, the commander of the
Seversky snorted. “They’re, quote, evaluating options for a relief force.
“Meaning the bastards can’t do a thing,” said Blumenthal. Nobody argued with
For a long moment nobody in the room said anything. They were looking at
Blumenthal, and after another moment, Seversky figured out why. The 101st
Airborne. The Battle of the Bulge. “Nuts.”
Blumenthal cleared his throat. “If I thought it would gain anything,” he
said, “I’d say fight to the last man. But -- ” His gaze dropped. “This isn’t
Bastogne and Patton’s not on the way. I think we have to face the fact that
we’ve had our clock cleaned.”
Word of the American force’s surrender reached the White House half an hour
before the story broke in the international media. It was a Tuesday morning in
September, with the first hint of autumn in the air. Weed stared out the windows
of the Oval Office, wishing he could take that September fishing trip he’d
planned months ago. No chance of that, not now. Grimly, he turned to his press
secretary and told him to have the news media ready for an important press
conference at 6 that evening.
Before then, he would have even worse news to face.
At 2 in the morning local time, Chinese special forces personnel left a
submarine in the middle of the Indian Ocean and climbed aboard radar-evading
inflatable boats. An hour later, they crawled up a poorly guarded beach near the
southern tip of Diego Garcia and found hiding places in the thick jungle just
inland. Silenced weapons and explosive charges were passed from hand to hand as
the four strike teams prepared for their missions. The first explosions hit
without warning; by the time the garrison realized what was happening, the
heavily guarded island’s radar stations and air defenses were already disabled.
Ten minutes later a dark winged shape -- the first of a dozen stealth-equipped
troop transports packed with Peoples Liberation Army soldiers -- came hurtling
out of the night to touch down on the captured main runway. By dawn, the entire
island was in Chinese hands.
As details trickled into the White House situation room, what kept circling
through Weed’s mind was sheer disbelief. Diego Garcia was the beating heart of
the entire U.S. Indian Ocean presence, a key logistics and intelligence center
and a base from which B-52s could pound trouble spots from Africa to Southeast
Asia. Losing Tanzania was a problem; losing Kenya was a crisis; losing Diego
Garcia... He shook his head, tried to think.
“Sir?” An aide had come in. “The press conference.”
“Yes. Yes, of course.” He drew in a deep breath and went to the door.
It was by all accounts one of the best speeches of Jameson Weed’s political
career. Extempore -- he had drawn up a draft before the news came about Diego
Garcia, but it was sitting on a desk in the Oval Office as he walked up to the
podium -- he sketched out the situation, explained what had happened in Kenya,
denounced China’s behavior in thundering terms, and broke the news of the fall
of Diego Garcia. “Let the Peoples Republic of China make no mistake,” he said.
“The United States will not let this unprovoked aggression stand. We will
respond with all the forces at our disposal. Nothing is off the table.” He
leaned forward, haggard and minatory. “Nothing.”
Half an hour later, the American embassy in Beijing filled in the details for
the Chinese government’s benefit: unless China withdrew its forces from East
Africa and Diego Garcia, the United States would respond with tactical nuclear
strikes. The Chinese response was swift and public. Speaking to a crowd of
reporters, the Chinese premier informed the world tartly that China would never
bow to threats, and that any attack on Chinese territory or military forces
would receive a corresponding response. As he spoke, Chinese diplomats were
making it clear to their American opposite numbers that “corresponding response”
in this case meant Chinese ICBMs heading for American cities.
Later that evening, the president of Russia appeared on television screens
around the world. With Slavic bluntness, he brushed aside the evasions the other
leaders had used in public. “The Russian Federation has been informed,” he told
the world, “that the United States has threatened China with nuclear attack.
Such threats are impermissible in today’s world. It is therefore my duty to
state that treaties between the Russian Federation and the Peoples Republic of
China require us, if China is attacked with nuclear weapons, to respond with our
own nuclear arsenal.”
No one who lived through the three days that followed would ever forget them.
Seven billion people who had come to think of mushroom clouds as a bad memory of
the Cold War suddenly had to face the imminent prospect of nuclear war. Defiant
words from Washington, proud rebuttals from Beijing, and frantic diplomacy by
the United Nations punctuated the panic that gripped the globe. The words of the
Emperor of Japan, broadcast live to a worldwide audience -- “Japan alone among
nations has suffered attack by nuclear weapons, and it is Our deepest wish that
no other nation should share that same bitter fate. We ask -- no, We plead --
that the leaders of the contending powers step back from so terrible an abyss”
-- spoke for billions. Meanwhile, in missile silos, bomber bases, and
submarines, young men and women waited for orders that, for all practical
purposes, would mean the end of the world.
In the United States, civil defense plans dating back to the Eisenhower
administration were dusted off and activated. One of them mandated that the
National Defense Highway System -- better known as the nation’s freeways -- be
closed to civilian traffic. There were good practical reasons for that step, but
nobody had thought about what would happen when millions of Americans tried to
flee urban targets and found the freeways barricaded. On the first day of the
crisis, most people were too stunned to do anything but follow the instructions
that filled the media -- stay put, seek cover, you are safer at home than out in
the countryside -- but the following night brought second thoughts.
The next morning, people in large cities all over America tried to get out.
Surface streets quickly filled up, turning into bumper-to-bumper jams that in
one case stretched for forty miles. Inevitably, those who found that route
closed turned again to the freeways, where police, National Guard units and
Homeland Security troops in black riot armor manned the barricades. The
flashpoint arrived toward sunset in Trenton, New Jersey, where a terrified mob,
convinced that the missiles were already on the way, tried to rush the
barricades on the John Fitch Parkway. Someone in the crowd had a handgun; shots
rang out; an inexperienced Homeland Security officer panicked, and ordered his
troops to open fire. By the time the shooting stopped, thirty-seven civilians
were dead and more than a hundred wounded.
The government scrambled to keep word of the Trenton Massacre, as it came to
be called, from getting out. News media had already been put under wartime
censorship, and social media online were pressured into deleting references to
the shootings as they appeared, but email and telephones were harder to stop.
Worse, the lack of accurate information fed terrifying rumors. As Americans
huddled in makeshift bomb shelters across the country, it was all too easy to
believe that a government willing to plunge the world into nuclear war might be
capable of anything. In the process, for a very large number of Americans, the
United States stopped being “us” and turned into “them.”
That would have immense results in the near future, but there were also more
immediate consequences. In Austin that night, after a flurry of calls from
worried constituents, the governor of Texas pulled rank on the phone company,
got a line through to a business friend of his in Trenton, and obtained a good
account of what had happened. The governor could all too easily imagine what
would happen if such an incident happened in proud, gun-loving Texas, and his
next call was to Homeland Security.
The official cut him off halfway through a sentence with a brisk
we-have-our-orders brushoff, and the conversation went downhill from there.
Finally the governor slammed down the phone with a roar of polymorphous
profanity that left his assistants awed. He flung himself up from the desk and
paced around the room -- a danger sign everyone in the state government knew and
feared -- and then returned to the phone, calling the old Army buddy of his who
was the commander of the Texas National Guard, and the close political ally of
his who was the head of the Texas Rangers. Both had been put under Homeland
Security authority by executive order for the duration of the crisis, but a
clash between Washington orders and Texas loyalties could have only one result.
Then the governor called Homeland Security back. “You listen to me,
sumbitch,” he said, stabbing the air with a finger the size of a sausage.
“You’re out of a job in this state. The Texas National Guard and the Texas
Rangers will be handling public safety in this state, under my command.”
“You can’t do that,” the official spluttered.
“Try me.” Another jab with the finger. “Get your thugs out of my state in 24
hours. You hear me? Twenty-four hours.” He slammed down the phone, hard. Minutes
later, on a new phone, he was calling drinking buddies of his who happened also
to be the governors of half a dozen Southern states.
Across the nation, as the third day of the nuclear crisis began and the news
of the Trenton Massacre spread, the same pattern played out on many different
scales, and the federal government began to lose control of its security forces.
Police officers in some places refused to man the barricades or pulled them open
and waved people through. National Guardsmen in some cities stayed in their
barracks or simply joined the crowds, taking their guns with them. Texas was
openly defying the national government -- the Homeland Security director there,
after frantic calls to Washington, fled to Denver -- and four other states were
on the brink of joining in.
It may have been this hard reality, added to the other pressures he faced,
that convinced Jameson Weed to take the only way out of the crisis. That night,
just before midnight, he met with the secretary general of the United Nations
and agreed to a ceasefire.
Part Four: Crossing the Line
This week’s post is the fourth of five parts of a fictional narrative tracing
out a scenario of American imperial defeat and collapse.
As the war ends, the price has to be paid -- and paying it will push the
already fractured United States toward a crisis few citizens could have imagined
a short time before.
The church bells rang all night; perfect strangers embraced and kissed each
other or fell on their knees and prayed together, depending on inclination; a
baby boomlet nine months later revealed how many Americans celebrated the sudden
discovery that life would go on. Around the world, crews in missile silos,
bomber bases and submarines sagged with relief as they got the order to stand
down. In the United States, the few police and National Guard units still
barricading freeways and guarding government assets melted into the cheering
crowds. The threat of nuclear war was past.
As a cold gray morning spread over Washington, though, Jameson Weed surveyed
what was left of his presidency, and dropped his head into his hands. A
negotiation team would soon be its way to Geneva to meet its Chinese and
Tanzanian opposite numbers and settle on a peace treaty. No matter how hard the
spin doctors worked it, he knew, that treaty would mean a bitter defeat for
America, and his solid grasp of the realities of American politics told him
exactly who would be blamed for it.
The treaty, as it turned out, was surprisingly generous. No one had to admit
fault or pay reparations; the United States simply had to accept the status quo
in East Africa and assign its rights over Diego Garcia -- which was owned by
Great Britain anyway -- to the Peoples Republic of China. Since the United
States had no effective way to contest either demand, there was clearly no point
in quibbling. The treaty was signed at the beginning of October, and ratified by
a glum Congress three days later.
Before that happened, though, two things pushed the country deeper into
crisis. The first was that one of the television networks broke the story of the
naval disaster. That was partly political -- the network had close ties to the
most likely presidential candidate from the other party -- and partly the
ordinary business of the news media, but it dealt a body blow to the nation’s
morale. The network found surviving crew members who had been evacuated to
Europe before Mombasa fell, and brought in testimony from analysts who spent
decades trying to warn the Navy of the obsolescence of carriers in an age of
cruise missiles. The rest of the news media quickly joined the feeding frenzy.
The second was more serious still. As the world began to grapple with the
fact that the United States was no longer the world’s strongest nation,
investors began selling dollar-denominated investments. The selling began in the
most risky kinds of speculative paper, but spread rapidly from there, sending
the dollar down hard. Frantic attempts by central banks to stop the collapse
crumpled in the face of a self-feeding panic, as investors all over the world
and in America scrambled to get out of the dollar at any cost. As the dollar
plunged against foreign currencies, the price of gasoline shot upwards to $12 a
gallon and kept climbing, and many other imported goods became unavailable at
Then, a week before the signing of the treaty, one of the nation’s biggest
investment banks went broke. Its traders had used inside knowledge of U.S.
policy to take huge positions in derivative markets that would pay off once
regime change took place in Tanzania. The possibility that the United States
might lose had never occurred to them, and the unhedged risk left them
hopelessly in the red. Bankers hurried to Washington, only to find that printing
trillions of dollars for a bailout when the dollar was already in freefall was
not an option. The following Friday, after markets closed, a grim-faced
executive from Goldman Sachs announced that her firm was bankrupt and would go
out of business. Over the next six weeks, U.S. stock market averages lost a
third of their value, erasing tens of trillions of dollars in paper wealth, and
eight other major financial firms that had been considered too big to fail
Well before that process was over, though, the country had a new president.
Two days after the peace treaty was ratified, as planeloads of American POWs
were leaving Nairobi Airport to begin their trip home, Jameson Weed stood behind
the presidential podium one last time and resigned his office. His final speech
was simple and dignified; he took full responsibility for the mistakes made
during his presidency, expressed his total confidence in his vice president and
successor, and asked God’s blessing for the nation. When he was finished with
the speech, he went to his private quarters, took a revolver from a desk drawer,
and shot himself through the head.
The new president, Leonard Gurney, was arguably not the best man for the
difficult job into which he was so suddenly thrown. A gifted communicator,
skilled at finding and shaping the pulse of the public, might have done much,
but Gurney had no such talents. The scion of a wealthy family, brought onto the
ticket to conciliate a powerful faction of his party, he had little grasp of
practical politics and no sense of the plight into which the East African war
and its aftermath had flung most Americans. To him, the crucial issues were
reestablishing the authority of the executive branch and funding a military
buildup that would enable the United States to retake the lead from the Chinese
and regain its former role of global dominance.
It was an agenda hopelessly out of touch with the times. The wildly cheering
crowds in Beijing were welcoming a new international order in which America was
no longer the sole superpower, and might not be a superpower at all for much
longer. In the wake of the East African war, a growing number of erstwhile U.S.
allies told the U.S. military units based on their territory to leave, and made
overtures to the Chinese. For that matter, between plunging tax revenues, the
collapse in the dollar’s value, and the ongoing bear market in treasury bills,
the United States could no longer afford the bases it maintained around the
world, and the carrier groups that had been the keystone of American power were
as obsolete as Old Ironsides. Gurney and his advisers could not grasp this, and
demanded money from a nearly bankrupt nation to fund the grandiose military
projects they thought could rebuild America’s power. Meanwhile China scrapped
its one carrier and fielded a new navy of small, fast, expendable ships, a move
copied promptly by such rising powers as India and Brazil.
Worse still, Gurney’s efforts came at a time when economic issues had taken
center stage in the minds of most Americans. The collapse in the dollar and the
drying up of imports gutted the economies of both coasts; while the farm belt
enjoyed a modest boom and manufacturing firms that produced goods for the
domestic market found themselves profitable again, these upticks did not begin
to balance the impoverishment of tens of millions of Americans whose wealth
depended in one way or another on the imploding financial sphere. From retirees
on fixed incomes to upper-crust families with hereditary wealth, those whose
fortunes depended on paper assets found themselves plunged into poverty.
There had been tent cities surrounding most American cities before the war,
but their number and the number of people living in them soared as autumn turned
to winter. Stories about deaths from cold and malnutrition began to appear in
the media. Added to the failed war, the Trenton Massacre, and the utter
disconnect between the new adminstration’s policies and the new realities of the
postwar world, the ongoing implosion of the American economy pushed the nation
into a crisis of legitimacy -- a crisis that Gurney and his advisers apparently
did not notice at all. Speech after presidential speech insisting that the
solution to the economic crisis would come from defense jobs and a restoration
of American power in the world bred resentment and, worse, contempt.
Lacking meaningful leadership from the White House, the pressure on Congress
to do something, or at least to appear to do something, about the rapid increase
in poverty became too great to ignore. The gridlock between parties rewarded by
their constituents for refusing compromise remained frozen in place, and though
the speeches grew more shrill as the crisis deepened, few substantive steps
could be acceptable to both sides. One party insisted on increased spending, the
other party insisted on lower taxes, and the bear market in treasury bills made
it increasingly clear that the old days of borrow-and-spend could not be revived
without turning the dollar’s ongoing slump into a death spiral.
It was out of desperation at that gridlock that the New American Prosperity
Act was drafted by a bipartisan committee. It was thicker than the Los Angeles
phone book and packed with giveaways to a galaxy of pet causes and special
interests, but the core of the proposed act was an expansive new social welfare
program, the costs of which would be borne almost entirely by the states.
Unfunded mandates -- programs imposed on the states by the federal
government, which provided no money to pay for them -- had been a bone of
contention for decades. NAPA was arguably no more onerous for the states than
earlier unfunded mandates, but it came when many states had suspended payment on
their debts, and some were struggling even to pay salaries. State governments
lobbied hard to keep NAPA off the books, to no avail; the act passed the House
in January and the Senate in early March, and was signed into law by President
Gurney a few days later. The following week, the state legislature of Arkansas
passed, with no dissenting votes, a resolution calling for a constitutional
convention to pass an amendment that would outlaw all unfunded mandates.
The initial reaction of the Washington establishment and the national media
to the Arkansas bill was hilarity. The U.S. constitution gave state legislatures
the power to call a convention if two-thirds supported the proposal, and pass
the resulting amendment if three-quarters of the states approved it, but that
provision had never been used; it had been more than a century since it had even
been tried. Jokes about rewriting the constitution in Arkansas dialect made the
rounds of the late night talk shows.
The next week, Montana and New Hampshire passed identical resolutions, and
the laughing stopped. Pundits churned out essays explaining why tinkering with
the constitution should be left to Congress if it had to be done at all. Canned
polls insisted that most Americans opposed a convention. The state legislatures
ignored them. They had their own ways of gauging the temper of the public, and
what they heard was that people were eager to see the constitution amended. It
wasn’t just unfunded mandates, either: somewhere in the course of the past year,
most Americans had become convinced that the system under which they lived was
broken, and needed much more than cosmetic change.
Four state legislatures called for a convention the following week, and five
the week following. After that, the floodgates opened, as state governments
realized that the chance to force major change really was in their hands. Two
weeks later, the magic number of 34 states was only a few more votes away.
At that point Congress panicked, repealed NAPA, and began to draft an
amendment of its own that would limit, though not ban, unfunded mandates. It was
much too little and far too late. The idea of a thorough revision of the
constitution was everywhere; state politicians were advocating this or that
reform; a few members of the House of Representatives, sensing which way the
political wind was blowing, joined the agitation. President Gurney denounced the
proposed convention repeatedly in his weekly internet videos on the White House
website, but few people were listening.
On April 24, Oregon became the 34th state to call for a constitutional
convention; five more did so over the course of the next month, making any legal
challenge moot. The Washington establishment fought to have the new convention
in Philadelphia, but lost; the delegates would meet in St. Louis, Missouri, at
the beginning of September. Congress exercised its right to decree that any new
amendment would have to be ratified by conventions in at least three-quarters of
the states, rather than by three-quarters of state legislatures, in the hope
that this might stymie a power grab by state governments. It was a disastrous
miscalculation, though no one would know that for months.
Rallies, speeches, and demonstrations framed the elections that, state by
state, chose the 250 delegates charged with reinventing the constitution. More
than 200 books urging one or another reform to the constitution saw print during
those frantic months. People at all points of the political spectrum placed
extraordinary and incompatible hopes on the convention, extending to the wildest
fantasies of left and right. Years afterward, rumors claimed that the national
political parties had encouraged this explosion of extreme views, and helped
extremists get elected as delegates, in the hope that this would cause the
convention to deadlock. If this was true, it was an even more disastrous
The constitutional convention opened Sept. 5 in the full glare of the world
media. At first, all went smoothly; an amendment banning unfunded mandates and
several other abuses of federal power over the states was introduced, debated,
and passed. The leaders of the moderate factions then moved to declare the
convention over and go home.
The motion was heavily defeated. Most of the delegates who had come to St.
Louis, and most of their constituents at home, wanted more -- much more. The
difficulty that surfaced, as the convention continued, was that what the people
wanted varied so drastically that common ground was impossible to find. Red
states wanted the right to own guns strengthened; blue states wanted it
abolished. Some Americans wanted to make the right to private decisions about
abortion sacrosanct; others wanted an amendment guaranteeing the rights of the
unborn. Nearly every fault line through American society gaped open in the
debates. New issues -- hard limits on the power of presidents to wage war
without consent of Congress, hard limits on the power of Congress to pass laws
without consent of the states or the people, and many more -- rose up to join
existing divisions, and sparked fierce debates of their own.
It so happened that delegates to the convention were seated by state, in
alphabetical order. As a result, one of the delegates from Utah sat next to one
of the delegates from Vermont. Late in the afternoon of the 18th, after a day of
bruising debates, the Utah delegate slumped back in her chair and said wearily,
“I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we just dissolve the Union and let everyone have
what they want.”
“I could live with that,” snapped the delegate from Vermont.
She considered him for a long moment. “I’m starting to think a lot of people
They worked out the details in the empty meeting room after a dinner of
takeout Thai. Both were state representatives with law degrees, and every
delegate had been issued a copy of the constitution with all its amendments, so
it took only a short time to work out what would become the 28th Amendment:
- Article I: The Union of the States is hereby dissolved, and the several
States shall be free to make other arrangements for their welfare.
- Article II: All property of the former federal government in each State,
at the time this amendment is ratified, shall become the property of that
- Article III: All property of the former federal government outside the
territory of the States shall be divided by agreement among the several
committee the next morning. The response was stunned silence. The amendment was
found to be in proper form, and a hearing was scheduled for the next day. Long
before that happened, everyone at the convention from the delegates to the
kitchen staff at the convention center sensed that something immense had
happened. A line had been crossed, and there might be no going back.
Within hours, thanks to news media reporting minute-by-minute from St. Louis, word of the proposal to dissolve the Union circled the globe. The most common reaction was to dismiss it as an edgy joke. One pundit wrote hopefully that the prank might finally bring the convention to its senses. A few articles profiled the two delegates who had written the measure, giving them their first fifteen minutes of fame -- they were back in the news two years later, on the occasion of their wedding -- and then the media tried to move on to what it considered important news.
Over the days that followed, however, the proposal took on a life of its own. Across the country, in bars and living rooms and grange halls, people talked about little else; public meetings and rallies drew huge crowds, and with each passing day more of them backed the proposal. Meanwhile the online forum set up for comment on the convention’s debates crashed three times in as many hours, flooded by posts about dissolving the Union. By October 4th, the day that the proposal was scheduled for a vote on the convention floor, comments on the forum were running ten to one in favor of dissolution.
Politicians and pundits were discovering to their horror what more perceptive observers had noticed long before -- that the United States had long since broken apart culturally, and stayed together only because the power of the federal government put disunion out of reach. Now, though, the unthinkable was an option. Every region saw a chance to get what it wanted without wrestling with the country’s yawning cultural chasms; western states in which up to 90% of the land was owned by the federal government, and thus exempt from state taxes and fees, ran the numbers and saw how easily they could balance their budgets once all that real estate fell into their hands ambitious politicians on the state level began to dream of leading new nations; and the thought of getting out from under the massive Federal debt, by the simple expedient of dissolving the government that owed it, was on many minds. For them and many other Americans, dissolution seemed to offer dazzling possibilities, and few considered the massive downsides.
On the night of October 3rd, opponents of the measure counted heads and found that they lacked the votes to stop it. Parliamentary maneuvers kept it off the floor the next day, but that unleashed a popular reaction that convinced even the most sanguine observers that something drastic was afoot. Rallies had already been called for the 4th, and they exploded in size as word got out that the vote was delayed. Across the country that night, crowds gathered and slogans sounded in the firelit dark. St. Louis saw one of the biggest demonstrations, with shouting crowds marching past the convention center for more than three hours. Delegates looked down at the sea of faces, and wondered where it would end.
The proposal to dissolve the Union finally came to a floor vote on the 6th. Despite impassioned pleas from opponents, it passed by a large majority. Another vote abandoned the amendment that would have stopped unfunded mandates -- in the absence of a federal government, the point was moot -- and a third brought the convention to a close. The moment the final gavel came down, the floor erupted in angry words and more than one shoving match, but the thing was done: what would be, if it passed, the 28th and last amendment to the constitution was on its way to the final test of ratification.
Now Congress’ decision to require amendments to be ratified by state conventions rather than state legislatures came back to haunt the Washington establishment. The power struggle between the states and the federal government had suddenly been overtaken by the people, and if the delegates they elected to the ratifying conventions supported dissolution, there was no way under the constitution to stop them; by law, a US constitutional amendment took effect the moment it was ratified, with no need for enabling legislation or anything else As the crowds marched, though, at least one person was thinking about ignoring the constitution -- and he had, in theory, the power to make that happen.
Admiral Roland Waite, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, paced down a Pentagon hallway to “the tank,” the soundproof conference room where the Joint Chiefs met. The Vice Chairman and the heads of the service branches were there, but so were the DCI and DNS, directors of the CIA and NSA respectively, along with key officials from elsewhere in the executive branch. Most of the federal government’s remaining power to make things happen was concentrated in that one room.
“You’ve seen the president.” This from General Mendoza, the Marine Corps commandant.
“Yes.” Waite settled into a chair at the long table in the room’s center. “Every time I go there these days, I wonder if I’m the only adult in the building.” That got an uneasy laugh. “He’s still dead set on a military response,” Waite went on, and the laughter stopped. “Today he ordered me -- his word -- to get things rolling: troop movements, logistics, everything. He’s got Justice working on the legal excuses.”
“They’ll need ‘em for martial law,” said General Wittkower, the Vice Chairman.
“It’s not just martial law.” Waite leaned forward. “He wants the whole country under military rule. Homeland Security’s working on a list of people to round up, internment camps, that sort of thing.”
“Jesus,” said Wittkower. “He’s talking coup d’etat.”
“Do you think we can make that stick?” Mendoza asked.
The DCI answered. “Best case scenario, yes, but we get a major insurgency out West backed with arms and money from China -- no way will Beijing be dumb enough to miss an opportunity like that. Worst case? The National Guard and some Army units side with the states, and we get civil war, again with China backing the other side. Could we win? Heck of a good question.”
“That got asked a lot in 1861,” said Mendoza.
“In 1861,” said Wittkower, “one region wanted out and the rest of the country said no you don’t. Now? The North wants to get rid of the South just as much as the South wants to get rid of the North, and let’s not even talk about the western states. I wish I could say we could count on the Army, but what I’m hearing from our security people isn’t good -- and the National Guard is worse.”
“There seems to be a lot of money backing dissolution,” said Waite. “Chinese money?”
“Heck of a good question,” the DCI said again. “America’s made a lot of enemies, and China’s only one of them. We’ve tried to trace the funds, but whoever it is knows how to hide their tracks.”
“What does Wall Street think?” This was from Wittkower.
“Depends on who you ask,” said one of the civilians, a career bureaucrat from Treasury. “Some firms are scared to death of dissolution and some are eager to cash in on it. Military government? That’s no problem, they know they can work with us. Insurgency or civil war is another matter. Even if we win, they’re saying, that’ll trash what’s left of the economy and hand the rest of the world to Beijing. If we don’t win, they’re going to be hanging from lampposts and they know it.”
“Right next to you and me,” Mendoza said. No one laughed; they all knew the commandant was right.
“Here’s the question that matters.” Waite looked from face to face around the table. “Do any of you think we can make it work?” Nobody answered. After a long moment, Waite said, “Well.” He got to his feet. “I think we all know what comes next.”
P.T. “Pete” Bridgeport showed up at eight the next morning for his weekly talk with the president. A genial fixture in the Senate for three terms, he had been an obvious choice to take the vice presidency after Weed resigned. He neither liked nor trusted Gurney, but politics was politics and a job was a job; he put on his friendly smile and went through the door. He found the president staring at a flat screen with a face the color of putty and the expression of a man who had just been strangled.
“Good God, Lon,” Bridgeport said. “What is it?”
The president kept staring at the screen and said nothing. Bridgeport came around to see for himself. A TV newscast showed Admiral Waite in uniform in one of the Capitol briefing rooms. ADMIRAL: GURNEY PLANS MILITARY COUP was splashed across the bottom of the picture. “ -- a terrible idea,” Waite was saying, his face bland. The words at the bottom of the picture shifted: RESIGNS AS CHAIRMAN OF JOINT CHIEFS. “But if this is how the American people decide they’re going to exercise their constitutional rights, the military’s job is to salute and say, ‘Yes, sir; yes, ma’am.’”
“Lon,” Bridgeport said quietly, “did you?” He had been told nothing of the military planning, but the president looked at him, and Bridgeport could read the answer in his face. “You’d better pack your bags,” he told Gurney then; his smile was gone, and his voice was suddenly that of the experienced politician explaining realities to a clueless junior. “They’re going to have your guts on toast.”
A president with strong public or Congressional backing could have survived the news, but Gurney had neither. At ten o’clock that morning, the Speaker of the House, ashen-faced, announced that other business would be set aside to consider a bill of impeachment. By the end of the day, nobody doubted that the bill would pass, and a head count of the Senate showed that conviction would follow. That night, Gurney had his press secretary read his resignation and fled the country on a private jet.
President Bridgeport took the oath of office a few minutes before midnight on November 12th, and his inaugural address called on Americans to join together and make the nation work again. Though his personal popularity was high, his message fell on deaf ears. For a great many Americans, Gurney’s failed coup had been the final straw, and Bridgeport’s efforts to rekindle a sense of patriotism were openly compared in the news media to Gorbachev’s attempts to relaunch Communism in the Soviet Union’s last days. Even his executive orders bringing the last US troops home from overseas and scrapping the nation’s obsolete carrier fleet did nothing to shift the terms of the debate.
There was little else Bridgeport could do, because the federal government was dissolving around him. The collapse in the dollar made federal salaries worth next to nothing, when plunging tax revenues allowed the government to pay them at all, and most federal employees simply walked off their jobs. Meanwhile, as the US dollar moved closer by the day to its ultimate value of zero, a pragmatic mix of barter, state scrip and Canadian dollars became the medium of exchange across much of the country.
The first state to ratify the 28th amendment, in a fine piece of irony, was South Carolina, the first state to secede in 1861. The ratifying convention met in Charleston on December 6th, and it took them less than three hours to pass through the formalities and vote for ratification; crowds sang “The Bonny Blue Flag” late into the night. Two days later Colorado met, and though it took longer -- a loyalist faction fought hard -- the results were the same. Before Colorado voted, Michigan met, and startled observers by voting against ratification. The next day, Iowa and New Mexico met, and voted to ratify.
That was the way it went, day after day, week after week. A handful of states bucked the trend, but only a handful, and the count rose steadily toward the crucial number of 38 states, three-quarters of the total. On January 29, when the Nebraska convention assembled in Lincoln, the count stood at 37 for and 9 against. It was a quiet, businesslike meeting. Once the delegates had been seated and the preliminary business taken care of, by unanimous vote, the convention closed debate and went straight to a roll call vote. By 118 to 32, the 28th amendment was ratified and the United States of America ceased to exist.
Three weeks later, Pete Bridgeport walked to the Capitol for lunch, greeting passersby on Pennsylvania Avenue as he went. The Capitol doors were unguarded these days; he went to the elevator and punched the floor for the Senate lunchroom. That was a restaurant now, serving the famous Congressional bean soup and sandwiches named after dead presidents to help keep the lights on in the old building. He knew the regulars at lunch, but this time Bridgeport spotted a crowd of unexpected faces.
“Pete!” A senator from Pennsylvania -- former senator, Bridgeport reminded himself -- waved him over. “Your timing’s good,” she said. “We’re inventing a country.”
“No kidding.” He ordered a bowl of soup and half a Harry Truman, paid in Canadian dollars, and went over to a long table where a dozen former senators and representatives sat over half-eaten lunches. The senator’s words were no surprise. New England had just declared itself a republic, nine southern states had delegates in Montgomery hammering out what wags were calling Confederacy 2.0, the republics of Texas and California had been proclaimed, and word was that Florida would follow shortly.
The senator filled him in. “We’ve been at the Senate Office Building on the phones with the states all morning. The seven eastern states that voted against ratification are in. So are Ohio and Delaware -- they called off their conventions once Nebraska made it moot. New Jersey only ratified because of Trenton; they want in, and Kentucky talked it over and decided they’d rather be with us than with the South. So what we’re saying is, okay, the rest of you don’t want the Union, that’s fine; we still do.”
“Thinking of using the old name?” Bridgeport asked.
“It’s got a nice sound to it, doesn’t it? Here, take a look at the map.” She handed him a printout: the old United States with a new border, marking off twelve states across the eastern core of the continent: from New York and the mid-Atlantic westward through Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky to Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin, linking the Atlantic, the Great Lakes, and the upper Mississippi. It was, Bridgeport realized, a viable nation.
The senator looked past Bridgeport, waved. “Hi, Leona. Care to pull up a chair?”
Leona Price had been the District of Columbia’s nonvoting delegate to Congress, and was a lunchtime regular at the Capitol. The senator filled her in, and asked, “How about the District of Columbia?”
“How about the stateof Columbia?” Price replied.
That stopped conversations at the table for a moment, but only a moment; the district’s aspirations to statehood had been common knowledge in the old Congress. “Rhode Island’s gone,” said an Ohio congressman down the table, “so, yeah, we’ve got an opening for a little state. You want the position?”
Price grinned. “Have to put it to the citizens, but I’m guessing yes.”
“Just a moment,” said Bridgeport. He left the table, found another lunchtime regular, a former Senate staffer, and talked to him in a low voice. The staffer left the lunchroom and was back five minutes later with a bundle of cloth. Bridgeport stood up, and said, “Can we clear some space in the middle here? This might be useful.” He and the staffer unrolled the bundle. Thirteen stars in a circle, thirteen red and white stripes: a tourist-shop copy of the original US flag lay spread in front of them.
“It was a pretty good country,” said Bridgeport, “back when there were just thirteen states, and we weren’t trying to run the rest of the world. It could be a good country again.”
“It’ll take a lot of hard work, Mr. President,” said the senator from Pennsylvania. She emphasized the last two words. “A lot of hard work.”
They were all looking at him, Bridgeport realized: not just the senators and representatives, but people all over the lunchroom. “I know,” he said. “What do we need to do first?”
-- for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not -Three Thousand Years of End of Times (That Never Happened)