The Chinese Cyberattacks: What Alexander Hamilton Would Say–and What He Would Do

The Chinese Cyberattacks: What Alexander Hamilton Would Say–and What He Would Do

If Alexander Hamilton were alive in our time, he would have plenty to say about the seemingly endless Chinese cyber-espionage on US defense assets, which even the Defense Science Board, an advisory group to the Pentagon, admits has caused “staggering losses” to US national security.

As the Board put it in a recent report:”DoD and its contractor base have already sustained staggering losses of system design information incorporating decades of combat knowledge and experience that provide adversaries insight to technical designs and system use.”

In other words, we have just seen the biggest theft of US defense secrets since the Soviet penetration of our nuclear program in the 40s–and who knows if the wave of hacks is anywhere close to ended.

Alexander Hamilton, of course, is typically remembered not for his military thinking, but rather for his economic and political thinking. Yet he was always concerned with matters of military necessity and grand national strategy.

At the age of 20, he dropped out of college to join a pro-independence militia. Soon thereafter, he became George Washington’s aide-de-camp in the American Continental Army.

After years at Washington’s side as a staff officer, Hamilton thirsted for combat glory on the battle line, and so, in 1781, he left headquarters and took command of an American battalion on the front line. At Yorktown, on October 14, 1781, he led a nighttime attack that captured a British redoubt; it was a turning point in the battle. The British army under Cornwallis surrendered five days later, and the Revolution was won.

Yet even though Hamilton himself had proven that physical bravery was a vital part of winning a war, he also understood that technological mastery, too, was vital. The rebellious colonies, he realized, had been at a distinct disadvantage throughout the war, lagging in the production of such vital military wares as naval artillery, muskets, and gunpowder.

Hamilton knew, too, that if the United States remained merely an agrarian country, it would inevitably be at a disadvantage compared to the rising industrial powers of Europe. He was indeed a money-oriented financier and businessman, but until his dying day, he believed that military strength, deriving from industrial might, would be the key to America’s long-term destiny. As a co-author of the Federalist Papers, published in 1787-8, he argued for an effective national government that would help to modernize–and strengthen militarily–the widely disparate colonies.

The U.S. Constitution, ratified on March 4, 1789, is replete with Hamiltonian enumerated powers, including the power to implement modernizing, pro-growth reforms such as building roads, issuing copyrights, and instituting centralized money coinage.

Later that same year, President Washington appointed Hamilton as the first Secretary of the Treasury. One of the Secretary’s key missions was the advancement of American industry, creating a tool not only of national wealth, but also of national defense. 

On December 5, 1791, Secretary Hamilton submitted his Report on Manufactures to Congress, and in the very first paragraph, he made his intentions clear–that the US must industrialize in order to insure its independence:

“The Secretary of the Treasury…has applied his attentionto the subject of Manufactures; and particularly to the means of promoting such as will tend to render the United States independent on foreign nations, for military and other essential supplies.”

Those are profound words: for military supplies, the United States must be “independent” of foreign nations. Always the businessman, Hamilton indeed favored expanded foreign trade–but not if such trade came at the expense of U.S. national security.

As he recalled, “The extreme embarrassments of the United States during the late War, from an incapacity of supplying themselves, are still matter of keen recollection.”  That is to say, for want of the needed war materiel, we could have lost the Revolution.

Speaking of US national security, one can say that if Hamilton were alive today, he would have been horrified to see a report last summer that China has “pervasive access” to 80 percent of the world’s communications. American leaders should have been horrified, too, but as group they seem not to have done much of anything about this gaping vulnerability in our communications. You know, the sort of gaping vulnerability that the Chinese could use to loot our defense secrets.

What Hamilton wrote in 1791 is just as true today: 

Every nation ought to endeavour to possess within itself all the essentials of national supply. These comprise the means of subsistence habitation clothing and defence. The possession of these is necessary to the perfection of the body politic, to the safety as well as to the welfare of the society.

The modernizing capitalist in Hamilton also couldn’t resist putting in the occasional pitch for more industry.  Wealth, he observed in his Report, is “materially connected with the prosperity of manufactures.” He added, “The States in which manufactures have most increased, have recovered fastest from the injuries of the late war.” Agricultural life might have its charms, but the path to national riches was mass production.

Still, the dominant theme of Hamilton’s document was national strength. For the new nation, he argued, developing a defense-industrial base “merits all the attention of and all the zeal of our public councils. ‘Tis the next great work to be accomplished.” 

That great work was accomplished, of course, in the 19th and 20th centuries. Taking nothing away from the grit and courage of the American armed forces, one can still observe that it’s better to win a war with technology, as opposed to blood. 

As General George S. Patton declared so memorably, “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.”  And if better tanks and airplanes–and oh, yes, the occasional A-bomb–helps that process along, that’s all to the good.

Yet in the 21st century, as the Defense Science Board report shows, we have been dramatically neglecting the fundamentals of our own strength–indeed, our own survival. 

Every few decades, just about every country in the world has faced a mortal threat to its independence, even to its existence.  he United States may be an exceptional nation, but it has received no exception from this iron law.

For the past 230 years–the US having secured its sovereignty by the signing of the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783–Americans have had to fight for their sovereignty, even survival, on a periodic basis. Think about it: 1812, 1861, 1917, 1941. 

Then, after World War Two, during the four decades of the Cold War, Americans had to deal not only with the threat of nuclear annihilation, but also with various relatively small–but still costly–hot wars, all of which were defined by the elected leaders of the time as vital to our security.

In 1991, the Soviet Union imploded–an implosion pushed along, of course, by Ronald Reagan’s defense build-up, especially his 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative.   For the next decade, Americans celebrated what Charles Krauthammer called a “holiday from history”–that is, the widespread feeling that victory in the Cold War had brought about a new and peaceful era of permanent American supremacy and dotcom prosperity.

Then, of course, 9-11. 

Although the Global War on Terror is, indeed, worldwide, as a practical matter, American attention has been focused on one particular region: the Greater Middle East. That’s Afghanistan and Iraq, most obviously, but also virtually the entire region, from Libya to Yemen to Iran to Pakistan.  And now Syria. 

Yet because so much attention has been focused on these Muslim lands, the US seems to have been asleep while China has been robbing us.  Indeed, one is reminded of a famous book about the Japanese sneak attack of December 7, 1941: At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor

So is history repeating itself with China in 2013?  Have we just seen another Pearl Harbor? No, or at least not yet. Yes, we have suffered a sneak attack, but no American has been killed, and we are not now at war with China. 

So the better analogy is to the Soviet espionage campaign of the late 1940s, which gave the Russians our atomic secrets. The result of that espionage, of course, was the solidification of the Cold War for four decades, as the US recognized that Red nukes protected communist lands from retaliation, no matter what the provocation. So not only did we lose nearly 100,000 American lives in the wars of Korea and Vietnam, but we were also unable to respond adequately, during those decades, to numerous deadly attacks on American armed forces on land, sea, and air. In other words, the full accounting of the cost of that single spate of Soviet espionage in the 1940s must be calculated over many painful decades. 

In our time, the same foreboding holds true of the Chinese espionage: We just don’t know yet the full cost of the damage. The Pacific region aside, what if China shares some of its new knowhow with Iran? Or with some other hostile power? We could wake up one day soon and discover that all the confident presumptions we make about American force projection–that we can easily send our missiles and troops anywhere in the world–could become as obsolete as the presumption that a cavalry charge would carry the day in the new era of the machine gun.

The American Establishment does seem, finally, to be realizing, at least a little bit, the threat from China. The headline on the front page of Tuesday’s edition of the Washington Post–“above the fold,” as they used to say–told a terrifying tale: “Confidential report lists U.S. weapons system designs compromised by Chinese cyberspies.” Reported the Post

Among more than two dozen major weapons systems whose designs were breached were programs critical to U.S. missile defenses and combat aircraft and ships, according to a previously undisclosed section of a confidential report prepared for Pentagon leaders by the Defense Science Board.

Yes, “critical programs.”  Nevertheless, even now, one can detect a tad of euphemism creeping into the coverage, softening the perceived impact in the minds of readers:

Experts warn that the electronic intrusions gave China access to advanced technology that could accelerate the development of its weapons systems and weaken the U.S. military advantage in a future conflict.

Actually, it’s not quite right to say that the Chinese intelligence victories could “weaken the US military advantage.” If the Chinese know our secrets, if they know how some of our most important weapons systems operate, they could do more than “weaken the US military advantage in a future conflict”–they could eliminate that advantage altogether and instead make it their own advantage.  As in, they could defeat us in a conflict. They win, we lose.

Hamilton, who spent his whole life working to strengthen America militarily, would have been horrified. And when Americans come to grasp the full dimensions of what has happened, they, too, will be horrified. Yet as for the political class, their real reaction to this cyber-debacle, beyond mere rhetoric, remains to be measured.

So what should we do? How should America react? What’s needed, of course, is a neo-Hamiltonian commitment to defense industrial autonomy. That is, no more buying military equipment, from bandwidth to electronics to screws and other fasteners, from China.

Yes, that suggestion–the idea that the US would make its own defense components, as a matter of security policy–seems improbable, even radical, in today’s political and economic environment. But if so, then America is truly in danger.  As we have seen, every few decades, nations face a struggle for their independence, even existence. We are in the early stages of just such a struggle with China.

In his day, Alexander Hamilton fully understood that economic and technological strength was the key underpinning to military power. And so he helped organize the framework of the US economy around the imperative of national security.

That’s the same vision we need today, now more than ever–because the Chinese, and radical Islam, are a lot scarier than the British. 

Image: Source: Alexander Hamilton (1757-1904) in the Uniform of the New York Artillery, by Alonzo Chappel,


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