Democracy - it's a complex thing
“This evening I come to you with a message of leave-taking and farewell, and to share a few final thoughts with you, my countrymen. Like every other citizen, I wish the new President, and all who will labor with him, Godspeed. I pray that the coming years will be blessed with peace and prosperity for all. Our people expect their President and the Congress to find essential agreement on issues of great moment, the wise resolution of which will better shape the future of the Nation.”
In 1961 former General Dwight Eisenhower gave his farewell address as President of the United States, a position he had occupied since 1953. During that time in office, the USA went through the purging process of McCarthyism. Following on from a war that had the dedicated support of progressive forces, in the 50s any involvement in “Communist Front groups” (like the League of American Writers) was not career enhancing. A suffocating, drinks oriented, fun loving yet hard working culture resulted, one in which women were liberated from having careers (as the system had encouraged, out of necessity, during World War II). Far better to have your arm on a man who was going places. Racism was no problem as it was invisible to all but the victims.
After a covert war on the people of Guatemala and Vietnam, among other things, Eisenhower reached the end of his administration. Even if he had wanted to continue, his compatriots in the Republican Party had legislated that Presidents could only serve two terms – their revenge on four term Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
As he reached the end of this term in office, Eisenhower became concerned that an unholy alliance of public and private power was starting to dominate the Republic.
“If you love your Uncle Sam/Bring them home, bring them home/Support our boys in Vietnam/Bring them home, bring them home/It’ll make our generals sad, I know/Bring them home, bring them home/They want to tangle with the foe/Bring them home, bring them home/They want to test their weaponry”
Folk-singer and one-time Communist Party member Pete Seeger was already aware of the potential threat of this unholy alliance when he was supporting the Republic during World War II. He had a different view of citizenship than Eisenhower, but their differences were put to one side during the war. After the war, the gloves came off as far as Eisenhower’s side was concerned. The House Un-American Activities Committee, begun in 1938 to weed out subversives, focused with renewed vigour on communists and “fellow travellers” after 1945 (it was felt that the left wing was more of a threat – after all, “the KKK is an old American institution” as Congressman Rankin noted).
Following a concert by Seeger, Paul Robeson and others in Peekskill, New York in 1949, concert-goers and performers were attacked by fascists and right-wingers. The atmosphere in the USA changed dramatically, and the tolerance for “un-American” thinking disappeared. The Cold War had begun and a war against communism was underway. Advanced weaponry was required and the alliance between the public and private sector was there to supply both the weaponry and the propaganda necessary to sell the costs to the domestic population.
Today the “communist threat” has been defeated, as the Soviets spent themselves into oblivion trying to keep up with the USA. As luck would have it, a new threat emerged in the form of the war on terror (begun by Reagan in the 80s and renewed by Bush following the September 11th attacks in 2001). The “peace dividend”, briefly floated after the Soviet collapse, never materialised.
Now, every state in the Union is dependent on contracts related to the military industrial complex. Any politician promising cuts to the military budget would have to explain what was going to happen to all those lost jobs. About half of every American tax dollar goes to military spending and from that spending comes jobs, from manufacturing weapons to research and development, much of that done in universities. Some of the R&D produces technologies which become used by civilians – for example, the internet. And then there are think tanks such as the Institute for Creative Technologies (based at the University of Southern California) which brings together Hollywood, the games industry and the US Army.
The result is an economy in which the needs of the military are interwoven with the needs of corporations to create a seamless whole. The USA is a military state, one that “accounts for about 43 percent of global military spending” according to Lawrence Wittner of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.
The needs of the domestic population, from healthcare to education, must be subordinate to military-industrial needs. The American people are free to say whatever they like, but if a rational course of action – cutting the Pentagon budget – means that jobs disappear, then anyone proposing this will find their audience less than receptive. Military-industrial demands can be wrapped up in the flag or presented as entrepreneurial dynamism but in the end so many people are employed by this system that they have a vested interest in its continuation.
And this leaves Americans with a democracy that is so diminished they cannot consider basic moral considerations. As Phil Ochs sang “the labor leader’s screamin’ when they close the missile plants”.
Towards the end of the First World War, the satirist Randolph Bourne wrote: “War is the health of the State. It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate cooperation with the Government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals which lack the larger herd sense. The machinery of government sets and enforces the drastic penalties. The minorities are either intimidated into silence, or brought slowly around by subtle process of persuasion which may seem to them really to be converting them. Of course, the ideal of perfect loyalty, perfect uniformity is never really attained. The classes upon whom the amateur work of coercion falls are unwearied in their zeal, but often their agitation, instead of converting merely serves to stiffen their resistance. Minorities are rendered sullen, and some intellectual opinion bitter and satirical.”
After Eisenhower helped overthrow the democratically elected government of Guatemala and incubate a test bed for superior American weaponry and tactics in Vietnam, he warned: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes…Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
Eisenhower was confused. War is the health of the State. The American system demands nothing more than the sacrifice of morals and reason for the sake of enriching the few and if the military-industrial complex can deliver this, then it wins. Sentimental ideas of national identity and family values serve an important function, meeting the needs of people who want to believe life means something more than making money. But the important thing, from the point of view of elites, is that their priveledge and power goes from strength to strength.
For the health of humanity, dismantling the arms trade is a key priority. Otherwise, democracy is just a word.