In 1967, Martin Luther King declared the Pentagon’s ambitions to be the enemy of his own. There is “a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America,” King informed those gathered at Harlem’s Riverside Church. “A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything on a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube.”
The ensuing decade did much to affirm King’s thesis. Vietnam hastened the death of the New Deal coalition by exposing intra-Democratic disagreements over the meaning of patriotism, and the virtues of deference to authority. Meanwhile, like all wars, Vietnam radicalized a portion of the young men who fought in it, training them in the arts of dehumanization and death. Some such veterans declined to forfeit these skills upon their return, and went on to form white nationalist militias, volunteer border patrols, and nativist organizations that fueled the radicalization of the American right. Finally, as King most explicitly predicted, Lyndon Johnson’s “guns and butter” budgets (i.e., his decision to expand the welfare state and American involvement in Vietnam without sharply raising taxes) spurred an inflation crisis that delivered America into neoliberalism, and turned the “War on Poverty” into a synonym for failure.
Nevertheless, Hal Brands insists that King was mistaken.
In a new column for Bloomberg, the Henry Kissinger distinguished professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies argues that progressives should stop calling for cuts to the Pentagon’s budget because “the military creates jobs, provides health care, and spreads liberal values.”
Brands’s case rests largely on wholly unsubstantiated assertions — that American military dominance is integral to liberalism’s survival at home and abroad; that defense spending has “massive positive spillovers in the form of national security and the ability to protect access to the global commons”; and that the real obstacle to expanding social welfare is the excessive generosity of Social Security and Medicare benefits.
But he does make some effort to buttress his headline argument — that the military-industrial complex is a fundamentally progressive institution. His contention is worth quoting at length:
[The left’s] core argument … is that large military outlays are incompatible with progressive domestic priorities. Pentagon spending rewards fat-cat defense firms rather than working- and middle-class individuals, this argument goes, and it sucks away money that could be spent on education, creating clean jobs and other progressive policies.
… [T]he progressive critique misses the fact that military spending already serves progressive ends. Yes, defense spending benefits the executives who run major defense contractors, just as infrastructure spending benefits the executives of companies that build highways and airports and schools. But the Pentagon budget also serves as a huge jobs program and source of economic security for the middle class. This includes the roughly 2 million people who serve either on active duty or in the reserves and 730,000 civilian employees. The vast majority of them qualify as middle class and enjoy precisely the sort of health care and other benefits progressives seek to provide for the population as a whole. It also includes innumerable Americans whose economic livelihoods depend on a well-funded Pentagon — those who work for government contractors and the entire “defense industrial base.”
New evidence on these points come from a study by the nonpartisan Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on whether American foreign policy serves the needs of the middle class. Using Ohio as a case study, the report concludes that defense spending “provides an economic lifeline for communities and households” across the state. Roughly 65,000 Ohioans work at military facilities, in tank factories, or in other defense-related jobs; communities such as Dayton and Lima could be devastated by significant contractions in military spending. Moreover, military service offers Ohioans — and people across the nation — access to myriad opportunities that might otherwise not be available.
“Across the state,” the report notes, “a middle-class standard of living would be put out of reach for several thousand Ohioans if they could not count on the National Guard and Reserves as a way to contribute toward their educational expenses, acquire coveted training, earn a livable wage, provide healthcare, and add to their portfolio of retirement benefits.”
The problem with Brands’s argument is quite simple: If one does not endorse his tendentious assertions about the beneficence of America’s “overbalance of military might,” then his headline claim collapses. Of course, abruptly eliminating a major source of public employment, socialized medicine, and industrial planning would negatively affect many middle-class Americans. And that point might have some relevance in intra-right debates between defense hawks and libertarians. But it does not tell progressive critics of the Pentagon’s exorbitant budgets anything that they do not already know. The left wants to increase investment in public employment, not reduce it. The fact that hundreds of thousands of Americans would plummet out of the (already shrinking) middle class if not for Uncle Sam only strengthens progressives’ case. After all, large swathes of the Pentagon budget do not go directly toward job creation, or education subsidies, or health-care benefits. If those funds could be reallocated to the progressive purposes Brands champions, then a middle-class standard of living would (ostensibly) be put within the reach of thousands of Americans who currently lack it.
For progressives, the question isn’t whether the government should continue paying millions of Americans to perform labor that serves the national interest. Rather, the question is whether paying them to build missiles for Saudi Arabia to drop on school buses actually serves that interest; or, less glibly, whether perpetually increasing the budget of a federal bureaucracy that has demonstrably exacerbated many of the problems it is supposed to solve — and which currently receives more funding than its analogues in China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, the United Kingdom, and Japan combined — advances our nation’s interests more than, say, reallocating resources away from that bureaucracy and into renewable energy infrastructure would.
More broadly, the fact that the military serves as an oasis of social democracy — within a nation whose welfare state and labor protections are the pity of the wealthy world — is a testament to progressives’ failures, not their triumphs. The historian Greg Grandin renders this point vividly in his new book The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. In it, Grandin argues that national expansion — first, through the westward march of the frontier, and then through overseas empire building— has long served as a means of dissipating the forces of class conflict (and thus, social reform), by both providing a path to upward mobility for a select subset of the population, and projecting internal social animosities outward. In our republic’s earliest days, working-class whites could secure property — and thus, economic autonomy and the franchise — by moving to the frontier, and assisting in the state’s project of Indian removal. Centuries later, “military service remained one of the country’s most effective mechanisms of social mobility … with the GI bill of rights providing education, medical care, and home ownership to veterans.”
But if imperial expansion facilitated democratization and social progress, it also quarantined those goods, and eventually undermined them. Nineteenth-century elites viewed the frontier as a “safety valve” for class antagonism in the industrializing East, providing disaffected (white) workers with an individualistic remedy for their plight. Today, America’s globe-spanning empire not only provides its working class with some decent jobs, but also access to relatively cheap consumer goods and abundant credit, both of which serve to camouflage declining social mobility and skyrocketing inequality. Meanwhile, such means of displacing social conflict always, eventually, fail on their own terms. Beyond constituting a genocide, centuries of frontier wars with Native Americans also fostered our nation’s most regressive tendencies, including its obsession with firearms and its racial paranoia. The “demonic, destructive suction tube” of Vietnam eventually reversed direction, fueling polarization and militant nativism within our own borders. And the past 17 years of war in the Middle East have brought home pervasive anti-Muslim bigotry. In 2002, just 25 percent of Americans told Pew Research that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence among its adherents; by the time Donald Trump announced his campaign for the presidency, that figure had doubled.
In sum, it is true that our $700 billion defense budget provides hundreds of thousands of Americans with decent jobs and social benefits. But progressives would like to provide all Americans with such economic security, and achieving that end is likely incompatible with maintaining a globe-spanning military empire. Brands’s only worthwhile rebuttal to this argument is that drastically expanding public provision of jobs and benefits outside the military-industrial complex simply isn’t politically viable. Republicans will never countenance “big government” in any other form. This is a plausible assertion in the immediate term. And so, perhaps, progressives would be wise to use the Pentagon budget as a Trojan horse for climate investment, just as the president is currently using it as a front for border-wall spending.
Ultimately, however, there is no alternative to defeating the conservative movement and overcoming our political class’s broader allergy to non-military-industrial policy. The middle class’s survival should not be contingent on the unceasing expansion of U.S. military power; and, in the long run, it simply cannot be.