The Two Internationalisms

By Lawrence Wittner

In recent years, internationalism―cooperation among nations for promotion of the common good―has acquired a bad reputation.

Of course, internationalism has long been anathema to the political Right, where a primitive tribalism and its successor, nationalism, have flourished for many years.  Focusing on their nation’s supposed superiority to others, a long line of rightwing demagogues, including Adolf Hitler (“Deutschland Über Alles”) and Donald Trump (“America First”), have stirred up xenophobia, racism, and militarism, often with some success in public opinion and at the polls.  Numerous nationalist imitators have either secured public office or are hungering for it in many parts of the world.

But that is new in recent years is the critique of internationalism on the political Left.  For centuries, internationalism was a staple of the progressive, avant-garde outlook.  Enlightenment thinkers promoted ideas of cosmopolitanism and the unity of humanity, critics of war and imperialism championed the development of international law, and socialists campaigned for replacing chauvinism with international working-class solidarity.  In the aftermath of two devastating world wars, liberal reformers roundly condemned the narrow nationalist policies of the past and placed their hopes for a peaceful and humane future in two world organizations:  the League of Nations and the United Nations.

A key reason for the decline of support for this internationalist vision on the political Left is the belief that internationalism has served as a cloak for great power militarism and imperialism.  In fact, there is some justification for this belief, as the U.S. government, while professing support for “democracy” and other noble aims, has all too often used its immense military, economic, and political power in world affairs with less laudatory motives, especially economic gain and control of foreign lands.

And much the same can be said about other powerful nations.  In their global operations during much of the twentieth century, were the British and French really concerned about advancing human rights and “civilization,” the Germans about spreading “kultur,” and the Russians about liberating the working class?  Or were they merely continuing the pattern―though not the rhetoric―of their nationalist predecessors?

To continue this subterfuge, starting in 1945 they all publicly pledged to follow the guidelines of a different kind of global approach, cooperative internationalism, as championed by the United Nations.  But, when it came to the crunch, they proved more interested in advancing their economies and political holdings than in developing international law and a cooperative world order.  As a result, while pretending to honor the lofty aims of the United Nations, they provided it with very limited power and resources.  In this fashion, they not only used the United Nations as a fig leaf behind which their overseas military intervention and imperialism continued, but ended up convincing many people, all across the political spectrum, that the United Nations was ineffectual and, more broadly, that cooperative internationalism didn’t work.

But, of course, cooperative internationalism could work, if the governments of the major powers―and, at the grassroots level, their populations―demanded it.  A fully empowered United Nations could prevent international aggression, as well as enforce disarmament agreements and sharp cutbacks in the outrageous level of world military spending.  It could also address the climate catastrophe, the refugee crisis, the destructive policies of multinational corporations, and worldwide violations of human rights.  Does anyone, aside from the most zealous nationalist, really believe that these problems can be solved by any individual nation or even by a small group of nations?

Fortunately, there are organizations that recognize that, in dealing with these and other global problems, the world need not be limited to a choice between overheated nationalism and hypocritical internationalism.  In the United States, these include the United Nations Association (which works to strengthen that global organization so that it can do the job for which it was created) and Citizens for Global Solutions (which champions the transformation of the United Nations into a democratic federation of nations).  Numerous small countries, religions, and humanitarian organizations also promote the development of a more cooperative international order.

If the people of the world are to stave off the global catastrophes that now loom before them, they are going to have to break loose from the limitations of their nations’ traditional policies in world affairs.  Above all, they need to cast off their lingering tribalism, recognize their common humanity, and begin working for the good of all.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner (https://www.lawrenceswittner.com/ ) is Professor of History Emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press). This article was originally published online by the History News Network

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How About a Peace Race Instead of an Arms Race?

by Lawrence Wittner

In late April, the highly-respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported that, in 2018, world military expenditures rose to a record $1.82 trillion.  The biggest military spender by far was the United States, which increased its military budget by nearly 5 percent to $649 billion (36 percent of the global total). But most other nations also joined the race for bigger and better ways to destroy one another through war.

This situation represents a double tragedy.  First, in a world bristling with weapons of vast destructive power, it threatens the annihilation of the human race.  Second, as vast resources are poured into war and preparations for it, a host of other problems―poverty, environmental catastrophe, access to education and healthcare, and more―fail to be adequately addressed.

But these circumstances can be changed, as shown by past efforts to challenge runaway militarism.

During the late 1950s, the spiraling nuclear arms race, poverty in economically underdeveloped nations, and underfunded public services in the United States inspired considerable thought among socially-conscious Americans.  Seymour Melman, a professor of industrial engineering at Columbia University and a peace activist, responded by writing The Peace Race, a mass market paperback published in 1961.  The book argued that military spending was undermining the U.S. economy and other key aspects of American life, and that it should be replaced by a combination of economic aid abroad and increased public spending at home.

Melman’s popular book, and particularly its rhetoric about a “peace race,” quickly came to the attention of the new U.S. President, John F. Kennedy.  On September 25, 1961, dismayed by the Soviet Union’s recent revival of nuclear weapons testing, Kennedy used the occasion of his address to the United Nations to challenge the Russians “not to an arms race, but to a peace race.”  Warning that “mankind must put an end to war―or war will put an end to mankind,” he invited nations to “join in dismantling the national capacity to wage war.”

Kennedy’s “peace race” speech praised obliquely, but powerfully, what was the most ambitious plan for disarmament of the Cold War era:  the McCloy-Zorin Accords.  This historic US-USSR agreement, presented to the UN only five days before, outlined a detailed plan for “general and complete disarmament.” It provided for the abolition of national armed forces, the elimination of weapons stockpiles, and the discontinuance of military expenditures in a sequence of stages, each verified by an international disarmament organization before the next stage began.  During this process, disarmament progress would “be accompanied by measures to strengthen institutions for maintaining peace and the settlement of international disputes by peaceful means.”  In December 1961, the McCloy-Zorin Accords were adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly.

Although the accelerating nuclear arms race―symbolized by Soviet and American nuclear testing―slowed the momentum toward disarmament provided by the McCloy-Zorin Accords and Kennedy’s “peace race” address, disarmament continued as a very live issue.  The National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), America’s largest peace organization, publicly lauded Kennedy’s “peace race” speech and called for “the launching of a Peace Race” in which the two Cold War blocs joined “to end the arms race, contain their power within constructive bounds, and encourage peaceful social change.”

For its part, the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, created by the Kennedy administration to address disarmament issues, drafted an official U.S. government proposal, Blueprint for the Peace Race, which Kennedy submitted to the United Nations on April 18, 1962.  Leading off with Kennedy’s challenge “not to an arms race, but to a peace race,” the proposal called for general and complete disarmament and proposed moving in verifiable steps toward that goal.

Nothing as sweeping as this followed, at least in part because much of the subsequent public attention and government energy went into curbing the nuclear arms race.  A central concern along these lines was nuclear weapons testing, an issue dealt with in 1963 by the Partial Test Ban Treaty, signed that August by the U.S., Soviet, and British governments.  In setting the stage for this treaty, Kennedy drew upon Norman Cousins, the co-chair of SANE, to serve as his intermediary with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.  Progress in containing the nuclear arms race continued with subsequent great power agreements, particularly the signing of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968.

As is often the case, modest reform measures undermine the drive for more thoroughgoing alternatives.  Certainly, this was true with respect to general and complete disarmament.  Peace activists, of course, continued to champion stronger measures.  Thus, Martin Luther King, Jr. used the occasion of his Nobel Peace Prize lecture in Oslo, on December 11, 1964, to declare:  “We must shift the arms race into a ‘peace race.’”  But, with important curbs on the nuclear arms race in place, much of the public and most government leaders turned to other issues.

Today, of course, we face not only an increasingly militarized world, but even a resumption of the nuclear arms race, as nuclear powers brazenly scrap nuclear arms control and disarmament treaties and threaten one another, as well as non-nuclear nations, with nuclear war.

Perhaps it’s time to revive the demand for more thoroughgoing global disarmament.  Why not wage a peace race instead of an arms race―one bringing an end to the immense dangers and vast waste of resources caused by massive preparations for war?  In the initial stage of this race, how about an immediate cut of 10 percent in every nation’s military budget, thus retaining the current military balance while freeing up $182 billion for the things that make life worth living?  As the past agreements of the U.S. and Soviet governments show us, it’s not at all hard to draw up a reasonable, acceptable plan providing for verification and enforcement.

All that’s lacking, it seems, is the will to act.

 

Dr. Lawrence Wittner (https://www.lawrenceswittner.com/) is Professor of History Emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press). This article was originally posted to History News Network

The United States is First in War, But Trailing in Crucial Aspects of Modern Civilization

By Lawrence Wittner

Maybe those delirious crowds chanting “USA, USA” have got something.  When it comes to military power, the United States reigns supreme.  Newsweek reported in March 2018:  “The United States has the strongest military in the world,” with over 2 million military personnel and vast numbers of the most advanced nuclear missiles, military aircraft, warships, tanks, and other modern weapons of war.  Furthermore, as the New York Times noted, “the United States also has a global presence unlike any other nation, with about 200,000 active duty troops deployed in more than 170 countries.”  This presence includes some 800 overseas U.S. military bases.

In 2017 (the last year for which global figures are available), the U.S. government accounted for over a third of the world’s military expenditures―more than the next 7 highest-spending countries combined.  Not satisfied, however, President Trump and Congress pushed through a mammoth increase in the annual U.S. military budget in August 2018, raising it to $717 billion.  Maintaining the U.S. status as “No. 1” in war and war preparations comes at a very high price.

That price is not only paid in dollars—plus massive death and suffering in warfare―but in the impoverishment of other key sectors of American life.  After all, this lavish outlay on the military now constitutes about two-thirds of the U.S. government’s discretionary spending.  And these other sectors of American life are in big trouble.

Let’s consider education.  The gold standard for evaluation seems to be the Program for International Student Assessment of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which tests 15-year old students every few years.  The last test, which occurred in 2015 and involved 540,000 students in 72 nations and regions, found that U.S. students ranked 24th in reading, 25th in science, and 41st in mathematics.  When the scores in these three areas were combined, U.S. students ranked 31st―behind the students of Slovenia, Poland, Russia, and Vietnam.

The educational attainments among many other Americans are also dismal.  An estimated 30 million adult Americans cannot read, write, or do basic math above a third-grade level.  Literacy has different definitions and, for this reason among others, estimates vary about the level of illiteracy in the United States.  But one of the most favorable rankings of the United States for literacy places it in a tie with numerous other nations for 26th; the worst places it at 125th.

The U.S. healthcare system also fares poorly compared to that of other nations.  A 2017 study of healthcare systems in 11 advanced industrial countries by the Commonwealth Fund found that the United States ranked at the very bottom of the list.  Furthermore, numerous nations with far less “advanced” economies have superior healthcare systems to that of the United States.  According to the World Health Organization, the U.S. healthcare system ranks 37th among countries―behind that of Colombia, Cyprus, and Morocco.

Not surprisingly, American health is relatively poor.  The infant mortality rate in the United States is higher than in 54 other lands, including Belarus, Cuba, Greece, and French Polynesia.  According to the World Cancer Research Fund, the United States has the 5th highest cancer rate of the 50 countries it studied.  For the past few years, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported, U.S. life expectancy has been declining and, today, the United States reportedly ranks 53rd among 100 nations in life expectancy.

Despite the fact that the United States is the world’s richest nation, it also has an unusually high level of poverty.  According to a 2017 UNICEF report, over 29 percent of American children live in impoverished circumstances, placing the United States 35th in childhood poverty among the 41 richest nations.  Indeed, the United States has a higher percentage of its people living in poverty (15.1 percent) than 41 other countries, including Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Thailand, Brazil, and Sri Lanka.

Nor does the United States rate very well among nations on environmental issues.  According to the Environmental Performance Index, produced by Yale University and Columbia University in 2018, the United States placed 27th among the countries it ranked on environmental health and ecosystem vitality.  The Social Progress Index, another well-respected survey that rates countries on their environmental records, ranked the United States 36th in wastewater treatment, 39th in access to at least basic drinking water, and 73rd in greenhouse gas emissions.

Actually, the findings of the Social Progress Index are roughly the same as other evaluators in a broad range of areas.  Its 2018 report concluded that that the United States ranked 63rd in primary school enrollment, 61st in secondary school enrollment, 76th in access to quality education, 40th in child mortality rate, 62nd in maternity mortality rate, 36th in access to essential health services, 74th in access to quality healthcare, and 35th in life expectancy at age 60.  In addition, it rated the United States as 33rd in political killings and torture, 88th in homicide rate, 47th in political rights, and 67th in discrimination and violence against minorities.  All in all, there’s nothing here to cheer about.

Does the U.S. government’s priority for military spending explain, at least partially, the discrepancy between the worldwide preeminence of the U.S. armed forces and the feeble global standing of major American domestic institutions?  Back in April 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower pointed to their connection.  Addressing the American Society of Newspaper editors, he declared:  “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”  A militarized world “is not spending money alone.  It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”

People infatuated with military supremacy should give that some thought.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner (http://www.lawrenceswittner.com) is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press)

This post originally appeared on Common Dreams

The Trump Administration Nuclear Weapons Policy Could Lead Us to Disaster

by Lawrence Wittner

In July 2017, by a vote of 122 to 1, with one abstention, nations from around the world attending a United Nations-sponsored conference in New York City voted to approve a treaty to ban nuclear weapons.  Although this Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons received little coverage in the mass media, its passage was a momentous event, capping decades of international nuclear arms control and disarmament agreements that, together, have reduced the world’s nuclear weapons arsenals by approximately 80 percent and have limited the danger of a catastrophic nuclear war.  The treaty prohibited all ratifying countries from developing, testing, producing, acquiring, possessing, stockpiling, using, or threatening to use nuclear weapons.

Curiously, though, despite official support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons by almost two-thirds of the world’s nations, the Trump administration―like its counterparts in other nuclear-armed countries―regarded this historic measure as if it were being signed in a parallel, hostile universe.  As a result, the United States and the eight other nuclear powers boycotted the treaty negotiations, as well as the final vote.  Moreover, after the treaty was approved amid the tears, cheers, and applause of the UN delegates and observers, a joint statement issued by the UN ambassadors of the United States, Britain, and France declared that their countries would never become party to the international agreement.

One clear indication that the nuclear powers have no intention of dispensing with their nuclear arsenals is the nuclear weapons buildup that all of them are now engaged in, with the U.S. government in the lead.  Although the Trump administration inherited its nuclear weapons “modernization” program from its predecessor, that program―designed to provide new weapons for nuclear warfare, accompanied by upgraded or new facilities for their production―is constantly increasing in scope and cost. In October 2017, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported that the cost for the planned “modernization” of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex over the next three decades had reached a staggering $1.2 trillion.  Thanks to the Trump administration’s plan to upgrade the three legs of the U.S. nuclear triad and build new cruise and ballistic missiles, the estimated cost of the U.S. nuclear buildup rose in February 2018 to $2 trillion.

In this context, the Trump administration has no interest in pursuing the nuclear arms control and disarmament agreements, discussed or signed, that have characterized the administrations of all Democratic and Republican administrations since the dawn of the nuclear era.  Not only are no such agreements currently being negotiated, but in October 2018 the Trump administration, charging Russian violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, announced a unilateral U.S. withdrawal from it.  Signed in 1987 by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, the treaty removed all medium-range nuclear missiles from Europe, established a cooperative relationship between the two nations that led to the end of the Cold War, and served subsequently as the cornerstone of U.S.-Russian nuclear arms controls.

Although some Allied leaders joined Trump in questioning Russian compliance with the treaty, most criticized the U.S. pullout, claiming that treaty problems could be solved through U.S.-Russian negotiations. Assailing the U.S. action, which portended a nuclear weapons buildup by both nations, a spokesperson for the European Union declared:  “The world doesn’t need a new arms race that would benefit no one and on the contrary would bring even more instability.”  Nevertheless, Trump, in his usual insouciant style, immediately announced that the U.S. government planned to increase its nuclear arsenal until other nations “come to their senses.”

Of course, as Daniel Ellsberg has noted in his book, The Doomsday Machine, nuclear weapons are meant to be used―either to bully other nations into submission or to wage a nuclear war.  Certainly, that is President Trump’s view of them, as indicated by his startling nuclear threats.  In August 2017, angered by North Korea’s nuclear missile progress and the belligerent statements of its leaders, Trump warned that “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States” or “they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”  In January 2018, referring to North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, Trump boasted provocatively that “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger and more powerful one than his.” Fortunately, largely thanks to the skillful diplomatic maneuvers of South Korean President Moon Jae-in―Trump’s threats of nuclear war against North Korea have recently ground to a halt, at least temporarily.

But they are now being redirected against Iran.  In May 2018, Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, an agreement with Iran that had been negotiated by the governments of the United States and other major nations. Designed to ensure that Iran did not develop nuclear weapons, the agreement, as UN inspectors reported, had been strictly complied with by that nation.  Even so, Trump, angered by other actions of the Iranian regime, pulled out of the agreement and, in its place, instituted punitive economic sanctions on Iran, accompanied by calls to overthrow its government.  When, in July, the Iranian president cautioned Trump about pursuing policies hostile to his nation, the U.S. president tweeted, in bold capitals: “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.”  Just in case Iranians missed the implications of this extraordinary statement, Trump’s hawkish national security advisor, John Bolton, followed up by declaring:  “President Trump told me that if Iran does anything at all to the negative, they will pay a price like few countries have ever paid.”

This obsession of the Trump administration with building nuclear weapons and threatening nuclear war underscores its unwillingness to join other governments in developing a sane nuclear policy.  Indeed, it seems determined to continue lurching toward unparalleled catastrophe.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner (http://www.lawrenceswittner.com) is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press). This article originally appeared on History News Network.

Trump’s Getting Us Ready to Fight a Nuclear War

by Lawrence Wittner

Although many people have criticized the bizarre nature of Donald Trump’s diplomacy with North Korea, his recent love fest with Kim Jong Un does have the potential to reduce the dangers posed by nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula.

Even so, buried far below the mass media coverage of the summit spectacle, the reality is that Trump―assisted by his military and civilian advisors―is busy getting the United States ready for nuclear war.

This deeper and more ominous situation is reflected in the extensive nuclear “modernization” program currently underway in the United States. Begun during the Obama administration, the nuclear weapons buildup was initially offered as an inducement to Senate Republicans to vote for the president’s New START Treaty. It provided for a $1 trillion refurbishment of the entire U.S. nuclear weapons complex―as well as for new weapons for nuclear warfare on land, in the sea, and in the air―over the following three decades.

Characteristically, this program, though unnecessary and outlandishly expensive, was not nearly grand enough for Trump, who, during his election campaign, repeatedly assailed what he claimed was the pitiful state of America’s nuclear preparedness. In fact, in his first campaign announcement, he went so far as to proclaim: “Our nuclear arsenal doesn’t work.”  In December 2016, shortly after his election victory, he tweeted: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability.” The next day, speaking with his usual brashness, he told Mika Brzezinski, the host of an MSNBC program: “Let it be an arms race.” He added: “We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”

Trump unveiled his official “America First” National Security Strategy in December 2017. Criticizing the downgraded role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security policy since the end of the Cold War, it broadened the role of nuclear weapons in future policy. Announcing the measure, Trump took the opportunity to denigrate his predecessors. “They lost sight of America’s destiny,” he remarked. “And they lost their belief in American greatness.”

Further details about that “greatness” appeared in February 2018, when the Trump administration released its official Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). Rather than continue the efforts of past administrations to reduce the size and scope of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the NPR sidelined any consideration of arms control and disarmament agreements. Instead, it called for upgrading all three legs of the U.S. nuclear triad and outlined plans to build two new types of nuclear weapons: a submarine-based nuclear cruise missile and a submarine-launched ballistic missile. The latter, although reportedly “low-yield,” could do as much damage as the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. According to Lawrence Korb, a nuclear weapons specialist who had served as Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Reagan administration, the Trump administration plan could catapult the cost of the U.S. nuclear “modernization” program to $2 trillion.

Like Korb, many nuclear weapons specialists were appalled not only by the astronomical cost of this nuclear buildup, but by its potential to facilitate nuclear war. “Low-yield” nuclear weapons, after all, are being built because they will provide the U.S. government with a more “usable” response than would either conventional or strategic nuclear weapons to problems with “enemy” nations. Nuclear enthusiasts like to think that, faced with the possibility of a low-yield attack, “the enemy” will back down; or that, if the U.S. government actually initiates an attack with such weapons, “the enemy” will not escalate to a full-scale nuclear counterattack. But is that a certainty? As Korb notes, “many U.S. military officials” believe that low-yield nuclear weapons will end up “providing Trump with a kind of gateway drug for nuclear war.”

In other ways, too, the Trump nuclear buildup laid out in the NPR presents new opportunities for slipping into a nuclear catastrophe. For example, as the U.S. government already possesses a submarine-launched conventional cruise missile, adding a nuclear cruise missile will lead the Russian government to assume that any cruise missile on board a U.S. submarine could be a nuclear one. Another opportunity for disaster will widen with the promised integration of nuclear and conventional weapons in U.S. military planning. Moreover, building more nuclear weapons will encourage other nations to develop their own, with many of them targeting the United States. Perhaps most dangerous, the Trump NPR lowers the official threshold for use of U.S. nuclear weapons, contending that the U.S. government would employ them in response to non-nuclear attacks upon civilians and infrastructure, including cyberattacks.

Trump himself, of course, has not only displayed an alarmingly high level of mental instability, impulsiveness, and vindictiveness, but a rather cavalier attitude toward using nuclear weapons. During his 2016 presidential campaign, according to MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, Trump consulted with a top foreign policy specialist “and three times asked about the use of nuclear weapons. . . . He asked at one point, if we had them, why can’t we use them?” Twice, during early 2016, Trump said that, when it came to the use of nuclear weapons, he wanted to be “unpredictable.” In 2017, caught up in an interchange of personal insults with Kim Jong Un, he threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea―presumably through a nuclear attack.

Trump apparently considers his nuclear weapons policy a component of “Making America Great Again.” But we might more justifiably view it as a giant step toward catastrophe.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press). This article was originally posted to History News Network.

Although Two Out of Three Americans Oppose Increasing U.S. Military Spending, the U.S. Government Is Boosting It to Record Levels

By Lawrence Wittner

Early this February, the Republican-controlled Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed new federal budget legislation that increased U.S. military spending by $165 billion over the next two years.  Remarkably, though, a Gallup public opinion poll, conducted only days before, found that only 33 percent of Americans favored increasing U.S. military spending, while 65 percent opposed it, either backing reductions (34 percent) or maintenance of the status quo (31 percent).

What is even more remarkable for a nation where military spending has grown substantially over the decades, is that, during the past 49 years that Gallup has asked Americans their opinions on U.S. military spending, in only one year (1981) did a majority of Americans (in that case, 51 percent) favor increasing it.  During the other years, clear and sometimes very substantial majorities opposed spending more on the military.

Although the Gallup survey appears to be the only one that has covered American attitudes toward military spending in 2018, reports by other polling agencies for earlier years reveal the same pattern.  The Pew Research Center, for example, found that, from 2004 to 2016, the percentage of Americans that favored increasing U.S. military spending only ranged from 13 to 35 percent.  By contrast, the percentage of Americans that favored decreasing U.S. military spending or continuing it at the same level ranged from 64 to 83 percent.

This opposition to boosting U.S. military spending became even stronger when pollsters provided Americans with information about the actual level of federal government spending and arguments for and against particular programs.  In March 2017, before opinion polling began by the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Integrity, it distributed a rough outline of the federal budget and a series of statements about spending programs vetted for fairness by opposing groups.  The result was that a majority of survey respondents reported that they favored cutting the military budget by $41 billion.

Current public opinion on military spending has a clear partisan dimension.  In its February 2018 polling, Gallup found that, among Republicans and independents leaning Republican, 54 percent said that the U.S. government was spending too little on the military.  Conversely, among Democrats and independents leaning Democratic, 53 percent said the federal government was spending too much on it.  Today, with Republicans dominating both Congress and the White House, it’s not surprising that U.S. military spending is once again soaring to record heights.

It’s hard to say, of course, where the current vast U.S. military buildup will lead.  Critics―and there have been many―predict war, bankruptcy, or both.  Kevin Martin, president of Peace Action, the largest grassroots peace organization in the United States, remarked:  “Our tax dollars pay for military policies that spur a global arms race―one that increasingly endangers our country’s security and undermines its economic viability.”

Americans might also want to ponder the fact that, with $700 billion per year now being pumped into the Pentagon by U.S. taxpayers, military spending consumes 54 percent of the federal discretionary budget.  And, if President Trump’s official recommendations for future years are followed, the military’s share of the federal budget will surge to 65 percent by fiscal 2023.  Combined with the huge budget deficits that will be produced by the GOP tax cuts for the wealthy and their corporations, this will almost certainly lead to devastating slashes in federal spending for education, healthcare, parks and recreation facilities, food distribution, jobs, infrastructure, and other public programs.

Of course, there are possibilities for blocking the current flood of military spending and its consequences.  The political mobilization of the widespread, but thus far latent, constituency against increased funding for the Pentagon, coupled with enough Democratic victories at the polls in 2018 to return of the House of Representative to Democratic control, would slow―and perhaps halt―the drift toward an overwhelmingly military-oriented public policy.

Short of these developments, however, it seems likely that the U.S. government’s discretionary spending will be devoted primarily to preparations for war.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner (http://www.lawrenceswittner.com) is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press). This post originally appeared on History News Network.

Who is a Hero?

By Lawrence Wittner

This essay originally appeared on History News Network. It is reprinted her with the author’s permission.

In the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. occupation authorities in Germany, checking on the effectiveness of their “denazification” program, polled Germans on whether they believed a civilian was “less worthy than a soldier.”  One wonders what they would think of the exalted status that many Americans currently accord to anyone serving in the U.S. armed forces, as announcements ring out―from airline flights to sporting events―with calls to applaud “Our Heroes.”

This adulation of everyone wearing a U.S. military uniform is a fairly recent phenomenon.  Although the popularity of triumphant military commanders like George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, and Dwight Eisenhower helped pave their way to the White House, the status of “hero” was not necessarily accorded to them or to the millions of other people who served in the U.S. military.  As the journalist Stephen Kinzer has noted:  “Past generations of Americans saw soldiers as ordinary human beings.  They were like the rest of us:  big and small, smart and dumb, capable of good and bad choices.”  Today, he added, “we pretend they are demi-gods.”

A hero, according to the standard definition, is a person noted for courageous acts or nobility of character.  How well do soldiers measure up to this standard?

Some measure up rather well, especially when they do things like persevere against overwhelming odds, rescue fallen comrades under withering fire, and defend civilians against enemy attack.  Although the wisdom and justice of wars in which soldiers fight can certainly be questioned, soldiers do behave heroically in many instances.

Other soldiers measure up badly, especially when they engage in massacring civilians, torturing or shooting prisoners, raping women, and other war crimes―things that have characterized the behavior of some U.S. troops from the nation’s early wars to more recent times.

Most American soldiers, though, have been neither heroes nor villains but, rather, dutiful, if sometimes reluctant, participants in the armed forces.  As one former U.S. soldier told me, upon his return from the Vietnam War:  “I just kept my head down and tried to survive.”  In recent years, in the context of an all-volunteer army, most young people have enlisted because they have little economic opportunity in civilian life, are continuing a family’s military tradition, or have a youthful taste for adventure.  Although some might end up displaying extraordinary valor or nobility of character, most are not trying to act like heroes but, simply, to do their jobs.

Defenders of their heroism argue that, by joining the armed forces, U.S. soldiers are courageously risking their lives and limbs.  And it’s certainly true that some pay a terrible price for their military service.  But, in fact, most modern U.S. soldiers never or rarely see combat.  In 2017, only about a third of active duty U.S. military personnel were located outside the United States, and the vast majority of these were not deployed in combat zones.

Civilian employment also has serious, though rarely mentioned, hazards.  During 2016, there were 5,190 fatal work injuries in the United States, with the highest fatality rates among loggers, fishermen, and aircraft pilots and flight engineers.  Firefighters, police, and farm workers also held exceptionally dangerous jobs.  According to the AFL-CIO, 50,000 to 60,000 Americans died of occupation-related diseases in 2015, while work-related injuries and illnesses have numbered between 7.4 million and 11.1 million per year.

But is there anything harmful about the blanket lauding of soldiers as heroes?

Well, yes.  It inculcates the dangerous myth that soldiers can do no wrong.  As Lieutenant Colonel William Astore has pointed out:  “When we create a legion of heroes in our minds, we blind ourselves to evidence of destructive, sometimes atrocious, behavior.  Heroes, after all, don’t commit atrocities.”  These atrocities, “so common to war’s brutal chaos, produce cognitive dissonance in the minds of many Americans, who simply can’t imagine their `heroes’ killing innocents and then covering up the evidence.  How much easier it is to see the acts of violence of our troops as necessary, admirable, even noble.”

Also, when American soldiers are idolized, respect for militarism and war grow accordingly.  Military training, military expenditures, military intervention, and military escalation become ways to “support the troops” or, at the least, take on a friendlier glow.

In addition, as soldiers, fervently applauded by the public, adopt the popular notion that they are the saviors of the nation, they have a tendency to stage armed takeovers of democratically-elected governments.  After World War I, Mussolini and Hitler began their own assault on democracy by mobilizing fellow veterans of that conflict to seize power.

Fortunately, the founders of the United States, fearful of “Caesarism,” placed control of the military in the hands of the elected civilian authorities.  But glorification of the armed forces could alter this arrangement.

Being uniformly lauded as “heroes” is also harmful to many soldiers, for it sweeps much of their actual experience under the rug.  Large numbers of American troops come home from combat suffering from PTSD, alcoholism, and drug dependency.  Indeed, an estimated 22 U.S. veterans a day commit suicide.  In these circumstances, they need understanding and help rather than fawning adoration.

Finally, the across-the-board hero-worship of soldiers not only devalues the heroism of those soldiers who have shown extraordinary courage, but the heroism, usually unsung, of many civilians.  What about the heroism of civil rights activists risking their lives in the cause of racial justice?  What about the heroism of journalists imprisoned or murdered for revealing private or public corruption?  What about the heroism of “whistleblowers” who risk lengthy imprisonment for exposing criminal behavior?  What about the heroism of workers who dare to organize or go on strike at the risk of their jobs?

For these reasons, among others, even soldiers themselves have objected to being labeled “heroes.”

Shouldn’t we stop singling out “the troops” for adulation and applaud heroism wherever it occurs?

Dr. Lawrence Wittner (http://www.lawrenceswittner.com) is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press)

Should Limiting North Korea’s Nuclear Ambitions Be the Responsibility of the U.S. Government?

By Lawrence Wittner

(This article was originally published on History News Network)

In recent months, advances in the North Korean government’s nuclear weapons program have led to a sharp confrontation between the government leaders of the United States and of North Korea.  This August, President Donald Trump declared that any more threats from North Korea “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”  In turn, Kim Jong Un remarked that he was now contemplating firing nuclear missiles at the U.S. territory of Guam.  Heightening the dispute, Trump told the United Nations in mid-September that, if the United States was forced to defend itself or its allies, “we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”  Soon thereafter, Trump embellished this with a tweet declaring that North Korea “won’t be around much longer.”

From the standpoint of heading off nuclear weapons advances by the North Korean regime, this belligerent approach by the U.S. government has shown no signs of success.  Every taunt by U.S. officials has drawn a derisive reply from their North Korean counterparts.  Indeed, when it comes to nuclear weapons policy, escalating U.S. threats seem to have confirmed the North Korean government’s fears of U.S. military attack and, thus, bolstered its determination to enhance its nuclear capabilities.  In short, threatening North Korea with destruction has been remarkably counter-productive.

But, leaving aside the wisdom of U.S. policy, why is the U.S. government playing a leading role in this situation at all?  The charter of the United Nations, signed by the United States, declares in Article 1 that the United Nations has the responsibility “to maintain international peace and security” and, to that end, is “to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace.”  Not only does the UN charter not grant authority to the United States or any other nation to serve as the guardian of the world, but it declares, in Article 2, that “all members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”  It’s pretty clear that both the U.S. and North Korean governments are violating that injunction.

Moreover, the United Nations is already involved in efforts to limit North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.  The UN Security Council has not only condemned  the behavior of the North Korean government on numerous occasions, but has imposed stiff economic sanctions upon it.

Will further UN action have any more success in dealing with North Korea than the Trump policy has had?  Perhaps not, but at least the United Nations would not begin by threatening to incinerate North Korea’s 25 million people.  Instead, to ease the tense United States-North Korea standoff, the United Nations might offer to serve as a mediator in negotiations.  In such negotiations, it could suggest that, in exchange for a halt to the North Korean nuclear weapons program, the United States agree to a peace treaty ending the Korean War of the 1950s and halt U.S. military exercises on North Korea’s borders.  Giving way to a UN-brokered compromise rather than to U.S. nuclear blackmail might well be appealing to the North Korean government.  Meanwhile, the United Nations could keep moving forward with its Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons―a measure both Kim and Trump despise (and might, in their opposition to it, even bring them closer together), but is very appealing to most other countries.

Critics, of course, say that the United Nations is too weak to deal with North Korea or other nations that ignore the will of the world community.  And they are not entirely incorrect.  Although UN pronouncements and decisions are almost invariably praiseworthy, they are often rendered ineffective by the absence of UN resources and power to enforce them.

But the critics do not follow the logic of their own argument for, if the United Nations is too weak to play a completely satisfactory role in maintaining international peace and security, then the solution is to strengthen it.  After all, the answer to international lawlessness is not vigilante action by individual nations but, rather, the strengthening of international law and law enforcement.  In the aftermath of the vast chaos and destruction of World War II, that’s what the nations of the world claimed they wanted when, in late 1945, they established the United Nations.

Unfortunately, however, as the years passed, the great powers largely abandoned a United Nations-centered strategy based on collective action and world law for the old-fashioned exercise of their own military muscle.  Unwilling to accept limits on their national power in world affairs, they and their imitators began engaging in arms races and wars.  The current nightmarish nuclear confrontation between the North Korean and U.S. governments is only the latest example of this phenomenon.

Of course, it’s not too late to finally recognize that, in a world bristling with nuclear weapons, savage wars, accelerating climate change, rapidly-depleting resources, and growing economic inequality, we need a global entity to take the necessary actions for which no single nation has sufficient legitimacy, power, or resources.  And that entity is clearly a strengthened United Nations.  To leave the world’s future in the hands of nationalist blowhards or even prudent practitioners of traditional national statecraft will simply continue the drift toward catastrophe.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner (http://www.lawrenceswittner.com) is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press).

Playing Nuclear “Chicken” With Our Lives

by Lawrence Wittner

What kind of civilization have we developed when two mentally unstable national leaders, in an escalating confrontation with each other, threaten one another―and the world―with nuclear war?

That question arises as a potentially violent showdown emerges between Kim Jong Un of North Korea and Donald Trump of the United States.  In recent years, the North Korean government has produced about 10 nuclear weapons and has been making them increasingly operational through improvements in its missile technology.  The U.S. government first developed nuclear weapons in 1945, when it employed them to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and currently possesses 6,800 of them, mostly deployed on missiles, submarines, and bombers.

According to the North Korean government, its nuclear weapons are necessary to defend itself against the United States.  Similarity, the U.S. government argues that its nuclear weapons are necessary to defend itself against countries like North Korea.

Although, in recent decades, we have grown accustomed to this government rhetoric about the necessity to possess nuclear weapons as a deterrent, what is particularly chilling about the current confrontation is that Kim and Trump do not appear deterred at all.  Quite the contrary, they brazenly threaten nuclear war in an extremely provocative fashion.  Responding on August 8 to North Korean threats, Trump publicly warned that North Korea “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”  Later that day, North Korea’s state media announced that its government was considering a strategy of striking the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam with mid- to long-range nuclear missiles―a strategy that a spokesman for the Korean People’s Army said would be “put into practice” once Kim authorized it.

This kind of reckless and potentially suicidal behavior is reminiscent of the game of “Chicken,” which achieved notoriety in the 1950s.  In the film Rebel Without a Cause (1955), two rebellious, antisocial male teenagers (or juvenile delinquents, as they were known at the time) played the game before a crowd of onlookers by driving jalopies at top speed toward a cliff.  Whoever jumped out of the cars first was revealed as “chicken” (a coward).  A more popular variant of the game involved two teenagers driving their cars at high speed toward one another, with the first to swerve out of the way drawing the derisive label.  According to some accounts, young James Dean, a star of Rebel Without a Cause, actually died much this way.

With news of the game spreading, Bertrand Russell, the great mathematician and philosopher, suggested in 1959 that the two sides in the Cold War were engaged in an even crazier version:  nuclear “Chicken.”  He wrote:  “As played by irresponsible boys, this game is considered decadent and immoral, though only the lives of the players are risked.”  But the game became “incredibly dangerous” and “absurd” when it was played by government officials “who risk not only their own lives but those of many hundreds of millions of human beings.”  Russell warned that “the moment will come when neither side can face the derisive cry of `Chicken!’ from the other side.”  When that moment arrived, “the statesmen of both sides will plunge the world into destruction.”

It was a fair enough warning, and only several years later, during the Cuban missile crisis, the game of nuclear “Chicken” played by Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy could have resulted in a disastrous nuclear war.  However, at the last minute, both men backed off―or, perhaps we should say, swerved to avoid a head-on collision―and the crisis was resolved peacefully through a secret compromise agreement.

In the current situation, there’s plenty of room for compromise between the U.S. and North Korean governments.  The Pyongyang regime has offered to negotiate and has shown particular interest in a peace treaty ending the Korean War of the 1950s and U.S. military exercises near its borders.  Above all, it seems anxious to avoid regime change by the United States.  The U.S. government, in turn, has long been anxious to halt the North Korean nuclear program and to defend South Korea against attack from the north.  Reasonable governments should be able to settle this dispute short of nuclear war.

But are the two governments headed by reasonable men?  Both Kim and Trump appear psychologically disturbed, erratic, and startlingly immature―much like the juvenile delinquents once associated with the game of “Chicken.”  Let us hope, though, that with enough public resistance and some residual sanity, they will back away from the brink and begin to resolve their differences peacefully.  That’s certainly possible.

Even if the current confrontation eases, though, we are left with a world in which some 15,000 nuclear weapons exist and with numerous people who, in the future, might not scruple about using them.  And so the fundamental problem continues:  As long as nuclear weapons exist, we teeter on the edge of catastrophe

Fortunately, this past July, in an historic development, the vast majority of the world’s nations voted at a UN conference to approve a treaty banning nuclear weapons.  Nations will begin the process of signing onto the treaty this September.  Although, sadly, all of the nuclear powers (including the United States and North Korea) oppose the treaty, it’s long past time for nuclear weapons to be prohibited and eliminated.  Until they are, government officials will remain free to play nuclear “Chicken” with their lives . . . and with ours.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner (http://www.lawrenceswittner.com) is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany.  He is the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press). This article was originally published on History News Network.

Should We Keep Wasting Money on Missile Defense―or Invest in Something Useful?

By Lawrence Wittner

When Americans criticize wasteful government spending, they often fail to realize that the biggest sinkhole for public funds is what’s described as “national defense”―a program that, all too often, does little or nothing to defend them.

Take national missile defense, a program begun with much fanfare during the mid-1980s, when President Ronald Reagan realized that U.S. nuclear weapons could not prevent a nuclear attack upon the United States. According to the President, his Strategic Defense Initiative (lampooned as “Star Wars” by Senator Edward Kennedy) would safeguard Americans by developing a space-based anti-missile system to destroy incoming nuclear missiles. Most scientists doubted its technical feasibility, comparing it to using one speeding bullet to destroy another speeding bullet. Critics also pointed out that development of such a system would simply end up encouraging hostile nations to build more missiles to overwhelm it or, if they wanted to avoid the additional cost, to use decoys to confuse it. In addition, it would create a false sense of security.

Although “Star Wars” was never built, the fantastic dream of a missile shield took hold in Congress, which began to pour billions of dollars into variants of this program. And, today, more than thirty years later, the United States still lacks an effective missile defense system. The U.S. government, however, ignoring this dismal record, continues to lavish vast resources on this unworkable program, which has already cost American taxpayers over $180 billion.

One of the major components of the missile defense program is the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system. Better known as GMD, it is designed to use ground-based “kill-vehicles” to destroy incoming nuclear missiles by colliding with them. In 2004, before any indication that GMD would work, President George W. Bush ordered the deployment of its interceptors. Today, there are four located at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base and 26 at Ft. Greely, Alaska, and the Obama administration has given orders to increase the total to 44 by the end of 2017. The GMD cost thus far is $40 billion.

All of this might be viewed as water under the bridge―or perhaps water down the drain―were it not for the fact that a third GMD site is now being considered. Military contractors are ferociously lobbying for it, communities in New York, Ohio, and Michigan are actively competing for it and, given long-time Republican enthusiasm for missile defense, this expansion seems very likely to be implemented by the Trump administration. The cost? An additional $4 billion.

Is this a good investment? GMD, it should be noted, was designed to defend against a nuclear attack by Iran or North Korea. But, thanks to the Iran nuclear agreement, its nuclear program is frozen until 2030 or later. North Korea is also not a nuclear threat to the United States, for it does not possess long-range missiles. Of 14 North Korean missiles tested during 2016, some failed to clear the launch pad while others traveled distances ranging from 19 miles to 620 miles. Naturally, as a small-scale system, GMD would be of no value against Russia’s enormous nuclear arsenal.

In fact, at this point GMD is of no value against anything. Thus far, the Pentagon has conducted 17 tests of GMD interceptors since 1999―all in conditions that should produce success. In a situation quite unlike armed combat, the people conducting the tests knew the speed, location, and trajectory of the mock enemy missiles ahead of time, as well as when they would be launched. Nevertheless, the GMD system failed the tests eight times―a 47 percent failure rate.

Nor has the GMD test record been improving in recent years. Quite the contrary. GMD has failed six of its last 10 tests and three of its last four. In mid-2016, a report written by three physicists and released by the Union of Concerned Scientists declared that the GMD system is “simply unable to protect the U.S. public.” Indeed, they concluded, “the system is not even on a path to achieve a useful ability” to do so.

Why, then, despite the enormous cost and the lack of useful results over many years, is this project continuing? One factor is clearly the U.S. fear of hostile governments. Beyond this, however, as David Willman―a journalist who has done extensive investigations of GMD―has reported, lies “the muscle wielded in Washington by major defense contractors, which have billions of dollars of revenue at stake.” Three of them, in fact―Boeing, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman―donated $40.5 million to congressional campaign funds from 2003 through October 2016.

GMD “will not work,” U.S. Representative John Garamendi, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told Willman. “Nevertheless, the momentum of the fear, the momentum of the investments, the momentum of the industry” carry it forward.

A key factor keeping billions of U.S. tax dollars flowing to this ill-conceived project is the desperation of declining American communities, anxious to attract the jobs a GMD installation would provide. The three communities vying to house the third GMD site are all in the hard-hit Rust Belt, and their public officials are eager to secure it. “Our community has been dying a little bit at a time,” an Ohio mayor explained. “So we’re hoping that the [local] site is selected.”

But if the only good reason for missile defense is that it provides a jobs program, why not invest those billions of dollars in jobs doing useful things? Why not invest in factories turning out solar and wind power components, high-speed rail cars, and inexpensive medicines? Why not invest in health care clinics, day care centers, libraries, schools, job-training facilities, community centers, concert halls, bridges, roads, inexpensive housing, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes?

This country has made useful investments before. With the political will, it could do so again.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner (http://www.lawrenceswittner.com) is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization and rebellion, What’s Going On at UAardvark? An earlier version of this article was posted to the History News Network.