Perpetual Threat

half mast flag Yesterday the nation observed the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor: December 7, a date that has lived in infamy for seventy-four years now. Flags flew at half-staff, news media featured recollections of elderly survivors, groups with common bonds to WWII gathered to commemorate the day, schools held assemblies, and thousands attended the ceremonies on Oahu. I understand the significance of the day and honor those who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor, as well as the victims of the coordinated Japanese attacks across the Pacific that day. In recent years we have likewise paid our respects on 9/11 to the victims of the terrorist attacks in 2001. However, I respectfully argue that our national obsession with commemorating attacks feeds the systematic growth of the national security state, which is justified by an atmosphere of perpetual threat.

In his farewell address of 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned that the growing links between the U. S. military and corporations constituted a “military-industrial complex” that was acquiring unprecedented influence and threatening the very foundation of American democracy. The system knit government, military, and contractors together in overlapping and mutually sustaining relationships that produced a steady stream of contracts, jobs, munitions, and votes. The “jobs” weren’t just for factory workers churning out more missiles, bombers, and warships: retiring military officers were offered lucrative careers with defense contractors and corporate officials stepped into powerful Pentagon positions. (It’s a high-stakes game of musical chairs that continues today, augmented by the unsettling rise of powerful lobbyists in Washington). The Cold War-era federal budget was well packed with defense appropriations that were sustained and inflated by a steady stream of new threats and real or perceived “gaps” in the nuclear arsenal. Ike’s warning was drowned out by the threats that abounded in 1961, though it resurfaced – at least in college classrooms – in later decades.

In an article titled “Tyranny of Defense” (The Atlantic, Jan/Feb 2011), Andrew J. Bacevich argues that Eisenhower actually initiated this important argument earlier in his presidency, though it fell on deaf ears then, too. In a 1953 speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors the president appealed to the public (and to the Soviet Union in the wake of Joseph Stalin’s death) to consider the consequences of a world “permanently perched on the brink of war.” The mutually draining and unnecessary military spending, Eisenhower said, diverts social capital from more productive purposes: thirty brick schools could be built with the cost of one heavy bomber. But, as Mr. Bacevich observes, America in the 1950s didn’t want to choose between bombers and schools, or between guns and butter: they wanted both and they got both. Keynesian economics prevailed in the postwar boom. Continued Cold War “defense” spending would stimulate the economy, create jobs, and increase the gross national product. Prosperity and security went hand in hand during the 1950s as the national security state took shape.

The Cold War fostered the growth of the national security state by focusing on the unrelenting perils of Communism that demanded urgent vigilance backed up by a vast array of military hardware. The burgeoning nuclear warhead stockpile served as a deterrent to Soviet aggression, but also assured massive retaliation in case the intimidation part didn’t work. Despite his warnings against the encroaching power of the system, President Eisenhower did not slow it down. Deterrent and massive retaliation were the key components of his national security doctrine. In an atmosphere of escalating threats and dangers, American families stocked basement bomb shelters and schoolchildren were drilled to “Duck and Cover!” As the stockpiles grew on both sides, what was assured was massive mutual destruction.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Cold War came to an abrupt end. The national security state, however, has continued to flourish in an atmosphere of perpetual threats and sustained crises. Post-Cold War dangers leapfrog at us from every direction as the years go by: nuclear-armed rogue states loom on the horizon, airplane hijackers lurk in the crowds, anthrax-laden envelopes wait in the mailbox, unattended baggage must be destroyed, Y2K, WMD, Axis of Evil, and radical Islamic terrorism that has opened a whole new spectrum of dangers from Al-Qaeda to ISIS to right in our own San Bernardino back yard. Advances in communications and information technology keep the state of perpetual threat right in our face with breaking news 24/7. We have become addicted to danger, as well as the assurance of safe distance from it. National security commands an enormous portion of the federal budget with the big money going to the vast, multi-agency “intelligence community.”

What does Pearl Harbor Day have to do with it? Again, with all due respect to the dead and the survivors, the lock that the infamous date holds in our national memory ennobles fear and victim-hood. Those attitudes feed our national danger addiction and enable our endless and expensive quest for national security. Since December 7, 1941, a pattern of heightened attention has emerged on decade anniversaries and quarter-century markers of Pearl Harbor Day (a pattern that is developing for 9/11 as well). Preparations are already underway for next year’s 75th anniversary at Pearl Harbor. It’s time for us to lay it to rest and begin a healthy recovery of our senses.