Where’s the Peace Movement?

On the fiftieth anniversary of President Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex speech (his farewell address), it’s worth asking just where the peace movement is these days.  Eisenhower, a vigorous cold warrior and internationalist, sounded an alarm about making decisions about foreign and military policy that served the interests of contractors and the Pentagon, rather than the nation as a whole.  He warned that:

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.

Fifty years on, it’s hard to find that alert and knowledgeable citizenry.  Activist antiwar groups remain, to be sure, doing all the things that peace groups do: education, lobbying, demonstrations.  But they lack the reach, visibility, and broad appeal of earlier waves of peace activism.  Why?

The United States supports the only truly global military, and spends more on the military than all other countries put together.   Here’s an inflation-adjusted “topline” of US military spending since the origins of the Cold War.  It’s hard not to notice that we’re spending more than previous peace and war time peaks of spending since World War II.  In the simplest calculations, military spending comprises more than one-fifth of all Federal government spending.  Yet when we talk about the deficit, cuts to military spending rarely appear on the hypothetical table–outside the speeches of (very) liberal Democrats and libertarian conservatives.

And we remain engaged in two wars on foreign soil.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced more than 5,800 deaths for American servicemen and women, and many times that number of injuries; the wars have cost the lives of many many more lives of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But, since 1973, the United States has run an all-volunteer military, allowing young men and women so-disposed to ignore the risks and human costs of war.  (The service burden on those volunteers has been onerous in the past decade.)

Candidate Obama challenged the Bush administration on military spending and the war in Iraq, and defeated his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, partly because he hadn’t voted to support that war.  He promised to end both wars, close Guantanamo Bay’s prison camp, and reduce military spending.

He’s almost kind of delivered a little, committing to reductions in deployments of combat troops in Iraq and, eventually, Afghanistan, and continuing to talk about closing Gitmo.  The White House has also ordered cuts in the military budget over the next five years.  (Libertarian think tank, CATO, emphasizes how relatively small these cuts are.Fred Kaplan’s analysis of the cuts planned so far stresses what a big change it is for the military, while agreeing that the military budget still far exceeds what the US is prepared to pay for.

In December, the lame duck Congress ratified the New START Treaty negotiated by the Obama Administration.  The treaty would limit the US and Russia to about 1,500 strategic nuclear weapons each.  That’s more than enough to produce plenty of gratuitous rubble-bouncing, but you’ll note (Federation of American Scientists chart on the right) the downward trajectory of the totals, and that the total of nuclear weapons hasn’t been this low since the middle of the Eisenhower administration.

Paradoxically, the peace movement is least likely to grow when it would most likely be effective.  The Obama administration is moving, ever so slowly, in the general direction that antiwar activists would prefer, and this slight movement is enough to make it extremely difficult to mobilize broad activism.

In the same way, anti-tax and anti-deficit activists mostly sat on the sidelines during the George W. Bush administration, cutting their allies a great deal of slack.

Movements are blunt instruments, built around coalitions of people with very different ultimate aims.  Those coalitions grow broad and strong only with big, clear targets.

Movements of the middle-class emerge in the face of gross provocation, that is, threats to depart from previous mainstream consensus policies.  They end up making change more difficult, effectively preserving a status quo that their partisans don’t find all that attractive to begin with.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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