The Disastrous Rise of Misplaced Power
Long before this time, government revenue everywhere had become firmly based on taxing production: taxing people’s pay, appropriating part of what people are paid for their production; and a part of the sales of what has been produced. And in the post-war Cold War, how taxpayers were going to pay, but without noticing it so much because of the huge expansion there was in everything.
Everywhere, great state machinery was now in place. The Second World War had produced a vast arms industry in the United States, as huge industrial mobilisation and staggering technical accomplishments had been executed, and vast invoices settled, vast influence established. The USA and the USSR became locked on a permanent war footing, and an enduring struggle in the poor world. Gore Vidal made the point that:
This nonsense began at a time when we had atomic weapons and the Russians did not.
Dwight Ike Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States, was earlier Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe in the closing stages of World War II. He is one of the most highly thought of American Presidents (in the US, at least.)
In 1953, at the beginning of his presidency, great uplifting hope for the world was glimpsed in his Chance for Peace speech. He saw it clearly, he said:
Every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
And he spoke clearly in his final Address to the Nation in 1961, he said:
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.
Good of him to share these thoughts with the world, after eight years of his presidency when he’d overseen the overthrow and replacement of democratically elected regimes, refused to allow elections in Vietnam and pushed the defence budget higher and higher.
A quick bit of background to Iran’s history. Iran in 1951 had, in fair and free elections, elected Mohammad Mossadegh as Prime Minister. He brought in a programme of social reforms and worked for the rights of women and workers. He brought in rent controls, instigated land reforms, instituted social security. But as if that wasn’t enough, he had the bloody temerity to nationalise the country’s oil industry, which had been under British control since 1913.
Mossadegh wanted an Iran that was free, democratic and independent. He believed a country couldn’t really be independent and free unless it first achieved economic independence. As he put it:
the moral aspect of oil nationalisation is more important than its economic aspect.
And he really meant it about independence. He upset everybody, refusing to grant an oil concession to the Soviet Union, as well.
Obviously, countries having independence, is absolutely not on, not real independence. A kind of nominal independence would be fine. Iran was blockaded by the British, and what we now know happened was that the CIA, on behalf of MI6, financed and orchestrated a coup which overthrew Mossadegh’s government in 1953. Mossadegh spent the rest of his life under house arrest, under a new Prime Minister, a general, of course, and a major land owner, naturally, proposed to the Shah of Iran by the CIA. The Western companies got their control of the oil back, and a cruel and repressive rule was inflicted on the Iranians.
More of the story, an Iranian perspective, here.
That the CIA/MI6 did this to an elected government isn’t anyone’s conspiracy theory, (though it was for many years) this is established fact. And that was the end of the Communist threat in Iran. How different history might have been. This isn’t very long ago, but it’s all forgotten by and large. These are the events that have shaped the world. This is how things have been done.
Guatemala was invaded under Eisenhower and the elected government replaced by a tyrannous regime. He also created the artificial state of South Vietnam to avoid the electoral threat of Ho Chi Minh’s Communists, set to take 80% of the vote in a free election in Vietnam, and laid the groundwork for a further American episode there later.
Eisenhower really is a fascinating character, communicating a powerful vision and clarity about humanity’s future. At the end of the WWII, according to Blanche Cook’s book, The Declassified Eisenhower, he wondered:
why the world's resources could not be internationalized, since raw materials represented the world's basic needs, they should belong to and serve everybody.
That is extraordinary. And, what is more, in 1950, Eisenhower had voted for Henry George in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans.
If he did say that, it’s fortunate that Senator McCarthy missed it, and it completely passed his attention that the reds weren’t only under his bed, they were in the White House. A statement like the above would surely have been slam dunk Communism in the USA in the early 50s.
But all these other much less noble things happened on Eisenhower’s watch, and then he was worried about misplaced power. There is a striking disparity, certainly not unique to Eisenhower, between the fine words he says, as in the Chance for Peace speech, and what actually happens. Leaders obviously do a lot of learning on the job, it’s scary.
Anyway, the outgoing president’s dire warning did nothing to head off the further disastrous rise of misplaced power, as America ramped up its military spending and armament manufacturers became major funders of both political parties. The future became a grotesque struggle between the two dominant superpowers, in which massive overkill stockpiles accumulated of doomsday weaponry. The state took on ever more serious powers and secrecy deepened and deepened.
The story has recently emerged that the USA very, very nearly nuked itself in 1961, with a bomb 260 times the size of Hiroshima. And there’s been thousands of other incidents involving nuclear weapons.
All through the years, there’s been absolute complete denial that any such thing could ever happen. Imagine, America nearly nuked itself. What would they have said? Would they have then, in that moment, assuming they had been attacked, have incinerated the world? It all came down to one little circuit. Uh?
And the following year was the Cuban Missile Crisis; phew!
The military industries of the northern world sucked wealth from their people, reaching Cold War peaks of 10% of GNP in the USA, with the Soviet Union having to devote 15-17% of their total output to keep up. Colossal sums and opportunity costs were spent on research to produce ever more sophisticated missiles, aircraft, tanks, submarines. The American public were fed hysterical reports about bomber gaps and missile gaps where they supposedly lagged behind the Soviet Union, even when it was known that the gaps were huge but that they were actually the other way around, the USA were always way ahead.
None of this is to say that the Soviet Union wasn’t a threat, that sought to spread their Communist ideology around the globe, their half of the great obfuscation. The fundamental misunderstanding of economic life is often illustrated in the rhetoric of revolutionary communist movements from around the world, when they speak of the workers and the people. Why this division? Surely, the workers are people. Why this separate division for workers? Everyone is a worker. The capitalists are workers. The class struggle has been misunderstood, the conflict wasn’t between capital and labour.
This misunderstanding made for a confused and severe ideology in what was apparently the workers’ world. The question actually is about ownership, of course; appropriation, theft. But what a mean and pessimistic way to talk about people, as workers. This Communist world produced humourless, austere regimes, often unhinged, where the people were numbers, and expendable for the greater good, and all individuality was subsumed into some grave common cause that the wise leadership understood, some perfect state one day that they knew the way to.
This absolute tyranny was certainly threatening, but it doesn’t work very well and never posed a fraction of the threat that was attributed to it. It sacrificed much to respond to the threat that was being ramped up against it.
The public were fed a bewildering supply of information, and made very well aware that their cities were closely and precisely targeted. Advice and information was issued to the public about nuclear attacks which was so pitiful that the point was well made that there was no hope whatsoever in the event of a nuclear attack.
ICBMs, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, that could, astoundingly and ultimately pointlessly, land within six feet of their target, underpinned the security of the situation termed MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction. By now, their multiple warheads had such enormous power that it would have been the end of everything wherever they’d landed. The industry was locked onto a perfection of the art, a first strike capability that would knock out the enemy’s arsenal before it could be launched. That the enemy are on the same planet and not actually very far away wasn’t a consideration. Kilotons and megatons had ratcheted up so that many multiples of the power necessary to extinguish all life on Earth were aimed at each other. Getting the first strike is would be meaningless with this sort of destructive power, but that is not following the logic of MAD.
This whole era is truly humanity at its most deranged, because of how far further than defence and deterrence this race went. The respective arsenals both held the destructive power to destroy all life on Earth many, many times over, forever. The necessary guarantee seemed to be that reducing the other side to irradiated rubble wouldn’t suffice, they had to be reduced to barren cinders.
MAD was credited by many for keeping the peace in the world. It didn’t keep the peace; what might be called World War III, or the Third World War, was conducted in what used to be called the Third World.
With MAD came everything that goes with being on a Doomsday footing; secrecy, surveillance, subterfuge, secret police, secret services, secret laws. The need for the state to know everything so that it could intercept threats to society; the need for the state to look for enemies amongst its own people; the inevitable mission creep that happens when there is such secrecy; the justification for the state to decide that they knew best what was to be secret, for the protection of the people.
Civil nuclear power, with its attendant security issues, just increased the importance and gravitas of government even more. The more complicated and concerning the world became, the more mysteriously powerful, the more crucial it was that government protect the people. The state had a responsibility to act in secret to make sure it knew everything it needed to know to keep everyone safe. It became a very complex, complicated world, government has to be left to the experts, the initiates, the people who understood the issues.
Power had become very big, everything became big, and people became much smaller in the 20th century. As the global game developed, whole populations became pawns in a strategic power game between the First and Second world, the mobilisations of the extreme polarities of the neoclassical casting. Around the world, events were manipulated to install whichever regimes were suitable to whichever northern power’s interests.
The West’s claim to be the beacons of democracy and enlightened progress for the world never did bear scrutiny. When something was in the West’s interests, particularly the supply of cheap oil, this consideration would always trump all the enlightened principles. Oppressive and wholly antithetical regimes were readily supported.
That the question of how a few billion people live well together on a well-stocked planet that it should generate such gargantuan concentrations of secret power, distorting political discourse and poisoning our international, intercultural relations, absorbing such colossal sums and generating such towering waste and human misery in these years, is the hugest tragedy. How much wealthier - and freer, happier - the citizens of the USA and the Soviet Union and the rest of the world could have been had those mind-blowing sums not been spent on such extraordinary, stupendous works of war craft.
How different might the Soviet Union have been without the shadow of destruction; at least it might have been a well-stocked and comfortable prison, and maybe would have gently thawed, and gradually swapped some jigsaw pieces around. (That was maybe what was happening at one point, before the shock therapy and the rushed transformation to Gangster Capitalism.)
The cutting edge technological race of the post-war arms race was largely incidental, though, to the populations of the West where, emerging from grim and grimy times, life was opening up as never before.