Power in the US II: The “Après-Guerre”

The US emerged from WWII more powerful and more united than ever. The baby-boom was about to begin and a new middle class would be built by the combination of strong labor unions, the GI Bill, access to higher education and 30 years of economic prosperity all to the tune of a top income tax rate of 90%. It was a period when the state invested in young people – e.g. undergraduate tuition was free at public institutions like the elite engineering schools at UC-Berkeley and City College of New York.

From the Civil War through WW II, the leadership of the country was in the hands of the fabled WASP establishment, what with their colonial era roots and Ivy League educations. After WW II, WASPs were still in positions of leadership; for example, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. (wow- both a Cabot and a Lodge) and Robert Taft Sr. (wow – grandson of President Taft) were powerful senators. But the WASP Ascendancy was over. In his work The Power Elite (1956), C. Wright Mills singles out, in so many words, Big Industry, Big Government and Big Military as the new US power structure. Big Labor too had some influence in this period. And political and economic leadership also had to be shared with emerging powerful Western states like California and Texas and with new groups such as Catholics and Jews.

With the Bretton-Woods monetary accords (1944) and the founding of the United Nations (1945), the US was assuming a new role in the world. The Almighty Dollar had become the world’s reserve currency and internationalism had replaced the non-interventionism of the WASP leadership (e.g. it was Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Sr. who scuttled plans for the US to join the League of Nations). Spurred by the Cold War, Big Government was made bigger with the creation of the CIA out of the wartime OSS (Office of Strategic Services) (1947) and by the creation of the NSA out of the wartime SIS (Signal Intelligence Service) (1952). The Marshall plan and NATO brought Western Europe under the American defense umbrella; Germany was re-armed and added to NATO, shocking many and especially the Soviets. The “containment doctrine” girded Eurasia with new military blocs (CENTO [Middle East], SEATO [Southeast Asia], ANZUS [the Antipodes]) and mutual defense treaties (Taiwan, South Korea, Japan). Intervention abroad was not new to the US foreign policy playbook. But now with the Cold War, this tactic was expanded way beyond the mare nostrum that was the Caribbean – there soon came dramatic regime change in Iran, in the Congo and in Indonesia, replacing left leaning leaders with amenable dictators (Pahlavi, Mobutu, Suharto).

Big Industry, Big Government and Big Military together created a new force in the country, the Military Industrial Complex – the one Eisenhower warned about in his farewell address. This new nexus of power and influence came complete with its revolving doors involving congressmen, generals, lobbyists and all kinds of government officials; add to that cost overruns and massive subsidies of underperforming contractors. Worse the benefits of capitalist competition were further diluted as the defense industry was subject to more and more mergers, making it a most non-competitive oligopoly – and it continues, the most recent merger being defense giants Raytheon and United Technologies (2020); somehow anti-trust does not apply to this world. The military budget has grown incessantly, in the process starving other departments (most dangerously the State department). This has led to the military’s being assigned all sorts of projects it is unequipped to carry out – “mission creep” and all that. Paradoxically, despite its dismal performance in endless wars, the military enjoys a position of prestige in the country and is even forced to take money for projects it itself does not want! For a sobering update on all this, there is Georgetown Professor Rosa Brooks’ work How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon (2016).

Another development that followed in the wake of the dazzling success of the wartime Manhattan Project was an extraordinary bonding of science and the Pentagon. Big Military became the major funder of university science research some of which has spilled over into the civilian realm such as the Internet, GPS and Artificial Intelligence. Although these achievements are impressive, they have come at the cost of redirecting research dollars and personnel to military ends as opposed to projects that would have addressed civilian needs much more responsively (such as the environment). In any case, this military domination of research has led us to today’s Surveillance State and created the new economic paradigm Surveillance Capitalism.

On the home front, the FBI was unleashed to combat anything and anybody whom the untouchable J. Edgar Hoover deemed “un-American” – people like Martin Luther King Jr. but not Mafia dons. Blacklisting became a spectator sport bringing dangerous grandstanders like Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn onto the national stage. Big Government was threatening civil liberties as never before. This was accompanied by the growing influence of the religious right as the US positioned itself as the bulwark against atheistic communism. Big Religion was represented faithfully by evangelists like Jerry Falwell on the fundamentalist side and by eminences like Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York on the high church side. At the behest of Big Religion, the phrase “under God” was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance (1954) by executive order and the nation’s longtime motto “E Pluribus Unum” was quietly replaced with “In God We Trust,” by an act of Congress no less (1956).

BTW : Witch hunting was not new to Cardinal Spellman: he was behind the campaign to prevent the City College of New York from hiring Bertrand Russell as a professor in 1940 on the grounds that Russell was “morally unfit” – even though Russell had already accepted the offer of the position. Two of the world’s greatest Logicians, Emil Post and Alfred Tarski, were in the Math Department at CCNY in 1940. Just think, had Russell come there, New York could have become the Mecca of Mathematical Logic in the US; instead Russell went back to Cambridge, Tarski went to Berkeley and the rest is history.

The political cause of Big Industry was taken up by men born wealthy like the Koch brothers and Joseph Coors. The achievements of Roosevelt’s New Deal and later Johnson’s Great Society were especially anathema to them and incompatible with their dystopian vision of a society based on cutthroat and unfair competition, simply put libertarianism. Challenges by environmentalists to Big Energy’s ability to plunder the land (and leave the cleanup bill to the rest of us) had to be squashed. University professors being too liberal and too intellectually honest, these wealthy backers of Barry Goldwater (and later Ronald Reagan) created right-wing think tanks like the Charles Koch Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, etc.). These shops serve as intellectual propaganda mills; among their achievements is the authorship of more than 90% of the papers skeptical on climate change. There even was a Nobel Prize in the new category of Economics for libertarian economist and propagandist James Buchanan (1986). This mix of wealth, Christianity, libertarianism and White superiority was loudly trumpeted by pundits like William Buckley with magazines, books and TV shows, all cleverly packaged as “conservatism.” Importantly, they provided unstinting support for right-wing candidates at all levels of government and for all sorts of court appointments. The strategy was brilliantly executed; for play-by-play: Duke Professor Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (2017)

Division was not unknown in America during the WASP ascendancy: capital vs. labor, nativist vs. immigrant, Black vs. White, rural vs. urban, men vs. women. But in the après-guerre, there was peace of a kind. The unions were strong and industry was churning, the sons and grandsons of immigrants had fought valiantly in two world wars, the military and professional baseball had been integrated, price supports and electrification buoyed the countryside, the 19th Amendment was the law of the land and Rosie the Riveter a national heroine.

But today (2020), 75 years after the war that left the country in a relatively unified state, the US is a nation dramatically divided by race, religion, wealth, political ideology; a nation at logger heads over civil rights, minority rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, immigrants’ rights; a nation incapable of coherent action on the environment, on health care; a nation immobilized by the COVID-19 pandemic; a hi-tech nation with scientific philistines in positions of power and with anti-vaxxers in a position to prevent vaccines from having their effect throughout the population. The new Power Elite failed egregiously there where the WASPs had managed to muddle through. How did this happen? More to come. Affaire à suivre.

One thought on “Power in the US II: The “Après-Guerre”

  1. A wonderful, if dismaying, summary of the last 75 years. I wonder, though, if you are letting the “establishment” of the first few decades of the 1900s off a bit too easy. For example, the modern “security state” of the US had it foundations laid by Wilson during WWI. Our entry into WWI itself was a brazen act of loan support to Wall Street banks who’d risked to much in loans to Britain. The Palmer raids, the shooting of US veterans in Washington, D.C. at the beginning of the depression, are evidence that the nascent fascism of post-war America had deep roots already.

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