“In our negotiations, Congressional Democrats have been fighting for increases in funding for defense.”
-- House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Military-Industrial Complex, CA) Feb. 18, 2018
George Kennan is one of the more important diplomats (and scholars) in the history of U.S. foreign relations. Best known as the “father” of the Cold War policy of “containment,” Kennan was the ultimate “cold warrior” of the immediate postwar era. Later in life, Kennan took a rare turn and began to question his core beliefs and became an ardent critic of foreign policy and especially the nuclear weapons race.
In 1948, Kennan was heading the Policy Planning Staff (PPS), a bureau he’d created at the request of Secretary of State Dean Acheson, and wrote important memoranda charting out the future of American foreign policy. In that capacity, he authored “PPS 23,” an overview of cold war policies.* In Section VII he analyzed America’s future in the Far East but used words that had meaning far beyond Asia. Kennan began by admitting the United States had limited means to influence “Asiatic peoples.” Americans were “deceiving ourselves” if they believed they had answers to the problems that were surfacing in Asia at the moment (rebuilding Japan and evaluating the Chinese Civil War, most importantly).
Furthermore, we have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.
Kennan was always respected for his openness, his frank explanations of American goals, power, and ultimately imperium. And this paragraph, while written as an evaluation of the U.S. role in Asia, spelled out in brutal honesty the U.S. goal in the days after World War II—to maintain and expand global hegemony, to “maintain this position of disparity.”
Now, 70 years later, with a legacy of presidents Democratic and Republican, conservative and liberal, we can see that ultimate goal—keeping the power gap between other states and the U.S.—never changed and is still the ruling class doctrine in foreign relations. In 1950, the National Security Council presented President Harry Truman and Dean Acheson with “NSC-68,” a famed Cold War document which argued that the Soviet threat to global freedom was so great that the U.S. had to embark on a permanent campaign of military spending (the “National Security State” against which Henry Wallace on the Left and Robert Taft on the Right had warned); just months later the war in Korea began and American defense spending rose from $13 billion in 1950 to over $60 billion in 1953, and after the war and demobilization stayed in the $35–40 billion range.
In the 1960s, again containing Asian Communism—in Vietnam this time—Democratic, liberal Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson spent hundreds of billions of dollars (the precise numbers have never really been established) on warfare at a time when there was supposed to have been a commitment to build a “Great Society” at home. After the war, again fearing a large decrease in military spending, Richard Nixon began ramping up U.S. arms sales, especially to the Third World. The U.S. began arming all sides in the various wars of liberation in Africa, increased arms sales by 400 percent to the Middle East (and sent $19 billion in weapons to support the Shah’s Iran between 1973 and 1978), and sold planes and missiles to Pakistan and India, among others.
By 1980, as an economic downturn caused to some significant degree by the end of Vietnam and the so-called oil shocks was wracking the American economy, Ronald Reagan pledged to “make America strong again.” His remedy was a heavy dose of military Keynesianism, raising Pentagon spending from about $340 billion in 1981 (almost $900 billion in 2018 dollars) to $456 billion in 1987 (or around $980 billion today).
Obviously the “Global War on Terror” broke the bank as Republicans and Democrats alike spent $1.6 trillion on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and perhaps $1 trillion on Homeland Security, with unknown and continuing costs for veterans and continuing “anti-Terrorist” operations ad infinitum.
Just two years ago, on February 2, 2016, President Barack Obama, using the Russian threat as Harry Truman did when Kennan wrote “PPS 23,” announced a quadrupling of military spending in Europe. Already, the U.S. has an annual military budget of about $600 billion, almost three times more than China, which is next in line, and almost the same as the next 14 states (including China) spend on defense. In 2018, as the epigraph to this article shows, the Democratic and Republican parties remain unified in their commitment to giving the military all that it asks for, or even more. That’s the true spirit of “bipartisanship” in America.
So, the percentages may be different, but the conditions Kennan was describing—a relatively small country with huge wealth and the goal of extending its riches and power, eschewing altruism and benefaction—are still relevant today, and the overriding purpose—to maintain that disparity—remains the same.
*George Kennan, PPS 23, “Review of Current Trends: U.S. Foreign Policy,” 28 February 1948.
A version of this article appeared at https://afflictthecomfortable.org/