Constructing and maintaining a permanent war economy was a policy commitment made by virtually every U.S. administration and Congress since the 1940s. It meant that budget decisions would be based on the primacy of military spending. And, military spending served ever since World War II as an economic stimulus to overcome recessionary dynamics in the economy as a whole and to support secure contracts for huge corporations engaging in military production and service.
The permanent war economy paralleled and supported the fifty year development of U.S. capitalism on the world stage. During this time frame global capitalism shifted economic activity from direct investment in goods and services at home and abroad to financial speculation. Those corporations which continued to manufacture goods for domestic and international consumption shifted their productive operations to poor countries where lower wages could be paid. These changing features of the international political economy were extended by globalization, the dramatic increase in cross-national economic, political, and cultural interactions. In short, the global political economy of the last fifty years has been significantly shaped by the building of a permanent war economy, financialization, deindustrialization, and globalization.
While these processes are critical to understanding the U.S. role in the world, scholars, pundits, and most importantly politicians explained the U.S. role in the world in different ways. The American people were told that the U.S. faced diabolical enemies, that our place in world history was special, and that we had an obligation to bring the American experience to the world.
The ideological campaign for the Cold War was articulated in speeches by former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1946 and President Harry Truman in 1947. The former, addressing a college audience in Fulton, Missouri warned that “…from the Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” One year later, President Truman in his famous Doctrine speech argued that there were two ways of life in the world, one based on freedom and the other tyranny. The United States, he said must defend the forces of freedom against “totalitarianism.” Of course, the threat came from the Soviet Union.
Three years later, an “in-house” document, National Security Council Document 68 (NSC 68) was drafted and circulated in the Truman administration by Secretary of State Dean Acheson. It recommended that military spending be the number one priority of every administration. And the recommendation was necessary because the Soviet Union constituted a military threat and an economic challenge. When the Korean War started, NSC 68 became publicly articulated policy and vision (even though the document itself remained classified until the 1970s).
The ideological construct, “good versus evil,” “freedom versus totalitarianism,” was rigidly imposed on a frightened public in the 1940s and 1950s as anti-communism pervaded the society. What came to be known as “McCarthyism,” imported images of domestic traitors, subversives, and foreignness into the American cultural stream. The threat was so great at home as well as abroad that state repression was justified to protect the nation.
In addition, academia contributed to the public face of this ideology through its development of “modernization theory.” Economic historian and Kennedy and Johnson foreign policy advisor Walt Rostow described what the world faced: Communism was “…a kind of disease which can befall a transitional society if it fails to organize effectively those elements within it which are prepared to get on with the job of modernization.” The disease must be expunged so that poor countries could develop market-based economies as did Europe and the United States. The ideological ground was laid for Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Chile, Central America, and Iraq and Afghanistan in our own day.
And, of course, we can reflect on the words of President Reagan who proclaimed shortly before he left office:
“We cannot escape our destiny, nor should we try to do so. The leadership of the free world was thrust upon us two centuries ago in that little hall of Philadelphia. In the days following World War II, when the economic strength and power of America was all that stood between the world and the return to the dark ages, Pope Pius XII said, 'The American people have a great genius for splendid and unselfish actions. Into the hands of America God has placed the destinies of an afflicted mankind.’ We are indeed, and we are today, the last best hope of man on earth.”
And finally in our own day, and when the Soviet “evil empire” was long gone, a new enemy, “international terrorism” was identified. And, like the former Soviet Union, this enemy threatened our being and necessitated a strong military response. President Bush said in 2002 (and again in a similar way just days before he left office):
“But the best way to secure the homeland is to find the enemy wherever they try to hide and bring them to justice. The best way -- make no mistake about it. You should not be confused about the nature of the people we're dealing with. They hate us, because we're free.They hate the thought that Americans welcome all religions. They can't stand that thought. They hate the thought that we educate everybody. They hate our freedoms. They hate the fact that we hold each individual -- we dignify each individual. We believe in the dignity of every person. They can't stand that.
And the only way they know to express themselves is through killing, cold- blooded killing. And so we need to treat them the way they are, as international criminals. And that's why my defense budget is the largest increase in 20 years. You know, the price of freedom is high,but for me it's never too high because we fight for freedom.”
In sum, while American imperialism has its roots in military spending, financialization, deindustrialization, and globalization, it has been explained to the American people in terms of high moral principle, coupled with a sense of the special mission that American brings to the world. For Puritan America, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush, America is “a city on a hill.” While peace activists need to work against military spending, oppose the speculative economy, demand worker rights at home and abroad, and oppose unbridled “free trade,” they must challenge the ideological justifications that have served to mobilize a troubled and pliant citizenry to support US policy for decades.