Sunday, December 6, 2015

Living Eisenhower's Nightmare

I teach history, which does not convey to me superhuman strength, but it probably does allow me to understand history better than the average bear. I would state that it is this understanding of history, of which I forever remain a student, that has helped me to gain a richer understanding of the "big picture;" and how the present is simply a continuation of the past. As I frequently tell my students, in history there really is no past, but a long continuum of the present. I will explore this idea another time.

It is only from a study of American history that one can understand the American present. Here is a trustworthy axiom of history: the present is a product of the past. Our world today can only be understood within the context of the past -- and sometimes that past can go back many, many years. To reiterate, the past is really just one long continuum of the present. This is not a complex nor abstract concept to understand, but it does require some thoughtfulness. Thus I introduce this chart:
Credit: Washington Post
 The United States spends on its military what the next thirteen nations spend combined! The chart is using 2011 budget numbers, and I suspect that the numbers are similar today. Why such crazy spending? To answer that we need to look at the immediate past.

American foreign policy underwent a radical shift under the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt. Prior to WW2 the United States was already an economic super power internationally, but only regionally a political power. Meaning that the US had yet leveraged its economic power to project its political power onto the world stage. One could argue that the American possession of the Philippines suggests otherwise, but the US only accidentally inherited those islands (and others) when it fought Spain over Cuba. American political will had been limited primarily to the banana republics of the Caribbean and Central America. WW2 changed that.

Great Britain found itself at its military and economic wits' end contra Nazi Germany. Under FDR the United States stepped into the war in part to keep Great Britain from perishing. As a consequence the United States stepped onto the international stage well beyond its prior provincial efforts -- the Philippians excepted. It then proceeded to project its military and political might into both Europe and the Pacific like never before. A position it has yet to retreat from.

After the war American economic power became nearly absolute, per Bretton Woods, and its extensive and expanding military equally powerful. But the US also for the first time, at least since the Revolutionary War, found a genuinely existential threat in the form of the Soviet Union. At least this was believed to be so during the 1950s. So great was the fear of the USSR that it was during this time that the controversial "under God" clause was added to the Pledge of Allegiance.

The Pledge of Allegiance prior to 1954.

 American foreign policy began to get more aggressive and threats were found everywhere, even at home, e.g., McCarthyism. We now begin to see the United States actively undermine sovereign governments around the globe. For example, Truman authorized a coup, in cahoots with the  British, against the democratically elected leader of Iran, as well as the release of what is now called the Truman Doctrine. Eisenhower followed in his predecessor's footsteps and allowed the CIA to orchestrate a coup against the leader of Guatemala, who was attempting to implement his version of the New Deal in his own country, though contrary to the wishes of the American business establishment operating there.

Later, Eisenhower regretted this action and was personally sobered by how expansive and invasive American military and political power had become. He was of two minds: on the one hand, he recognized the serious threat to the United States that the Soviet Union posed; on the other, he fully understood the threat to democracy -- American democracy -- that a large standing army posed. He articulated this in his now famous Farewell Address to the American people in January 1961. (A text can be found here and a video here.)

It was here that he famously warned the American public of the "military-industrial complex." That is, a collusion of leaders in both the US military and US industries which could undermine the American democratic system. Allegedly he had originally called this cabal the military-industrial-congressional complex, but he told his brother that he had not wanted  -- in effect -- to make his conceptional construct too unwieldy by stretching the label.

He is right: the military-industrial complex has proven to be a threat to American democracy and even world peace. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 these covert leaders of our military machine found themselves without a nemesis -- an enemy so onerous that it justified spending billions and billions of dollars annually to oppose. What to do? Either find a new boogeyman to scare the bejeebers out of the American people or, better yet, create new enemies. Real enemies. Only in this way can the profits from this collusion continue to flow. Hence the current "War on Terror" and, even, ISIS. Yes, ISIS is a by-product of American foreign policy, a policy that seems to have the intent of creating opportunities for war. See the chart on American military spending above. This is not a conspiracy theory, though I wish it was.

What to do? I have no idea. Ultimate power in the United States does belong to the people, no matter how much our unelected oligarchal overlords might try to circumvent that fact. But history, and our American origin myths, teach us that Americans have two choices: the ballot box or pitchforks and torches. Let's hope it is the former that will prevail.

Otherwise, we'll forever be in one war after another: endless war.



  1. Insightful comment, that visual graft really demonstrates the obscene amount of monies our government spends on the military!!

  2. Very insightful information based on your thorough understanding of history. The question remains on which way will this all end up---only God knows and with that we can be at peace.


Emphatic language can be couched in kind words. Let's all be adults here and use our words constructively.