As U.S. college students―and their families―know all too well, the cost of a higher education in the United States has skyrocketed in recent decades. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, between 2008 and 2017 the average cost of attending a four-year public college, adjusted for inflation, increased in every state in the nation.
In late April, the highly-respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported that, in 2018, world military expenditures rose to a record $1.82 trillion. The biggest military spender by far was the United States, which increased its military budget by nearly 5 percent to $649 billion (36 percent of the global total). But most other nations also joined the race for bigger and better ways to destroy one another through war.
This situation represents a double tragedy.
Like the main island of Puerto Rico, Vieques—located eight miles to the east―was ruled for centuries as a colony by Spain, until the Spanish-American War of 1898 turned Puerto Rico into an informal colony (a “nonsovereign territory”) of the United States. In 1917, Puerto Ricans (including the Viequenses) became U.S. citizens, although they lacked the right to vote for their governor until 1947 and today continue to lack the right to representation in the U.S. Congress or to vote for the U.S. president.
During World War II, the U.S. government, anxious about the security of the Caribbean region and the Panama Canal, expropriated large portions of land in eastern Puerto Rico and on Vieques to build a mammoth Roosevelt Roads Naval Station. This included about two-thirds of the land on Vieques. As a result, thousands of Viequenses were evicted from their homes and deposited in razed sugar cane fields that the navy declared “resettlement tracts.”
The U.S. Navy takeover of Vieques accelerated in 1947, when it designated Roosevelt Roads as a naval training installation and storage depot and began utilizing the island for firing practice and amphibious landings by tens of thousands of sailors and marines. Expanding its expropriation to three-quarters of Vieques, the navy used the western section for its ammunition storage and the eastern section for its bombing and war games, while sandwiching the native population into the small strip of land separating them.
Over the ensuing decades, the navy bombed Vieques from the air, land, and sea. During the 1980s and 1990s, it unleashed an average of 1,464 tons of bombs every year on the island and conducted military training exercises averaging 180 days per year. In 1998 alone, the navy dropped 23,000 bombs on Vieques. It also used the island for tests of biological weapons.
Naturally, for the Viequenses, this military domination created a nightmarish existence. Driven from their homes and with their traditional economy in tatters, they experienced the horrors of nearby bombardment. “When the wind came from the east, it brought smoke and piles of dust from their bombing ranges,” one resident recalled. “They’d bomb every day, from 5 am until 6 pm. It felt like a war zone. You’d hear . . . eight or nine bombs, and your house would shudder. Everything on your walls, your picture frames, your decorations, mirrors, would fall on the floor and break,” and “your cement house would start cracking.” In addition, with the release of toxic chemicals into the soil, water, and air, the population began to suffer from dramatically higher rates of cancer and other illnesses.
Eventually, the U.S. Navy determined the fate of the entire island, including the nautical routes, flight paths, aquifers, and zoning laws in the remaining civilian territory, where the residents lived under constant threat of eviction. In 1961, the navy actually drafted a secret plan to remove the entire civilian population from Vieques, with even the dead slated to be dug up from their graves. But Puerto Rican Governor Luis Munoz Marin intervened, and U.S. President John F. Kennedy blocked the Navy from implementing the plan.
Long-simmering tensions between the Viequenses and the navy boiled over from 1978 to 1983. In the midst of heightened U.S. naval bombing and stepped up military maneuvers, a vigorous local resistance movement emerged, led by the island’s fishermen. Activists engaged in picketing, demonstrations, and civil disobedience―most dramatically, by placing themselves directly in the line of missile fire, thereby disrupting military exercises. As the treatment of the islanders became an international scandal, the U.S. Congress held hearings on the matter in 1980 and recommended that the navy leave Vieques.
But this first wave of popular protest, involving thousands of Viequenses and their supporters throughout Puerto Rico and the United States, failed to dislodge the navy from the island. In the midst of the Cold War, the U.S. military clung tenaciously to its operations on Vieques. Also, the prominence in the resistance campaign of Puerto Rican nationalists, with accompanying sectarianism, limited the movement’s appeal.
In the 1990s, however, a more broadly-based resistance movement took shape. Begun in 1993 by the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques, it accelerated in opposition to navy plans for the installation of an intrusive radar system and took off after April 19, 1999, when a U.S. navy pilot accidentally dropped two 500-pound bombs on an allegedly safe area, killing a Viequenses civilian. “That shook the consciousness of the people of Vieques and Puerto Ricans at large like no other event,” recalled Robert Rabin, a key leader of the uprising. “Almost immediately we had unity across ideological, political, religious, and geographic boundaries.”
Rallying behind the demand of Peace for Vieques, this massive social upheaval drew heavily upon the Catholic and Protestant churches, as well as upon the labor movement, celebrities, women, university students, the elderly, and veteran activists. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans throughout Puerto Rico and the diaspora participated, with some 1,500 arrested for occupying the bombing range or for other acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. When religious leaders called for a March for Peace in Vieques, some 150,000 protesters flooded the streets of San Juan in what was reportedly the largest demonstration in Puerto Rico’s history.
Facing this firestorm of protest, the U.S. government finally capitulated. In 2003, the U.S. Navy not only halted the bombing, but shut down its Roosevelt Roads naval base and withdrew entirely from Vieques.
Despite this enormous victory for a people’s movement, Vieques continues to face severe challenges today. These include unexploded ordnance and massive pollution from heavy metals and toxic chemicals that were released through the dropping of an estimated trillion tons of munitions, including depleted uranium, on the tiny island. As a result, Vieques is now a major Superfund Site, with cancer and other disease rates substantially higher than in the rest of Puerto Rico. Also, with its traditional economy destroyed, the island suffers from widespread poverty.
Nevertheless, the islanders, no longer hindered by military overlords, are grappling with these issues through imaginative reconstruction and development projects, including ecotourism. Rabin, who served three jail terms (including one lasting six months) for his protest activities, now directs the Count Mirasol Fort―a facility that once served as a prison for unruly slaves and striking sugar cane workers, but now provides rooms for the Vieques Museum, community meetings and celebrations, historical archives, and Radio Vieques.
Of course, the successful struggle by the Viequenses to liberate their island from the burdens of militarism also provides a source of hope for people around the world. This includes the people in the rest of the United States, who continue to pay a heavy economic and human price for their government’s extensive war preparations and endless wars.
Nevertheless, as numerous recent opinion polls reveal, most Americans don’t support this policy.
The reaction of the American public to Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from key international agreements has been hostile. According to a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll conducted in early May 2018, shortly before Trump announced a pullout from the Iran nuclear agreement, 54 percent of respondents backed the agreement. Only 29 percent favored a pullout. In July 2018, when the Chicago Council on Global Affairs surveyed Americans about their reaction to Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement and the Paris climate agreement, it found that 66 favored remaining within the Iran accord, while 68 percent favored remaining within the Paris accord―an increase of 6 percent in support for each of these agreements over the preceding year.
Most Americans also rejected Trump’s 2019 withdrawal of the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia. A survey that February by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs reported that 54 percent of Americans opposed withdrawal from this nuclear arms control treaty and only 41 percent favored it. Furthermore, when pollsters presented arguments for and against withdrawal from the treaty to Americans before asking for their opinion, 66 percent opposed withdrawal.
In addition, despite Trump’s sharp criticism of U.S. allies, most Americans expressed their support for a cooperative relationship with them. The Chicago Council’s July 2018 survey found that 66 percent of Americans agreed that the United States should make decisions with its allies, even if it meant that the U.S. government would have to go along with a policy other than its own. Only 32 percent disagreed. Similarly, a March 2019 Pew Research poll found that 54 percent of American respondents wanted the U.S. government to take into account the interests of its allies, even if that meant compromising with them, while only 40 percent said the U.S. government should follow its national interests when its allies strongly disagreed.
Moreover, despite the Trump administration’s attacks upon the United Nations and other international human rights entities―including pulling out of the UN Human Rights Council, withdrawing from UNESCO, defunding UN relief efforts for Palestinians, and threatening to prosecute the judges of the International Criminal Court―public support for international institutions remained strong. In July 2018, 64 percent of Americans surveyed told the Chicago Council’s pollsters that the United States should be more willing to make decisions within the framework of the UN, even if that meant going along with a policy other than its own. This was the highest level of agreement on this question since 2004, when it was first asked. In February 2019, 66 percent of U.S. respondents to a Gallup survey declared that the UN played “a necessary role in the world today.”
But what about expanding U.S. military power? Given the Trump administration’s success at fostering a massive military buildup, isn’t there widespread enthusiasm about that?
On this point, too, the administration’s priorities are strikingly out of line with the views of most Americans. A National Opinion Research Center (NORC) survey of U.S. public opinion, conducted from April through November 2018, found that only 27 percent of respondents thought that the U.S. government spent “too little” on the military, while 66 percent thought that it spent either “too much” or “about the right amount.” By contrast, 77 percent said the government spent “too little” on education, 71 percent said it spent “too little” on assistance to the poor, and 70 percent said it spent “too little” on improving and protecting the nation’s health.
In February 2019, shortly after Trump indicated he would seek another hefty spending increase in the U.S. military budget, bringing it to an unprecedented $750 billion, only 25 percent of American respondents to a Gallup poll stated that the U.S. government was spending too little on the military. Another 73 percent said that the government was spending too much on it or about the right amount.
Moreover, when it comes to using U.S. military might, Americans seem considerably less hawkish than the Trump administration. According to a July 2018 survey by the Eurasia Group Foundation, U.S. respondents―asked what should be done if “Iran gets back on track with its nuclear weapons program”―favored diplomatic responses over military responses by 80 percent to 12.5 percent. That same month, as the Chicago Council noted, almost three times as many Americans believed that admiration for the United States (73 percent) was more important than fear of their country (26 percent) for achieving U.S. foreign policy goals.
Unlike the president, who has boasted of U.S. weapons sales to other countries, particularly to Saudi Arabia, Americans are also rather uncomfortable about the U.S. role as the world’s pre-eminent arms dealer. In November 2018, 58 percent of Americans surveyed told YouGov that they wanted the U.S. government to curtail or halt its arms sales to the Saudi Arabian government, while only 13 percent wanted to maintain or increase such sales.
Finally, an overwhelming majority of Americans continues to express its support for nuclear arms control and disarmament. In the aftermath of Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the INF treaty and announcement of plans to
The ideal of socialism goes back deep into human history and, at its core, is based on the notion that wealth should be shared more equitably between the rich and the poor. Numerous major religions have emphasized this point, criticizing greed and, like the revolutionary peasants of 16th century Germany and the rebellious Diggers of 17th century England, preaching the necessity for “all God’s children” to share in the world’s abundance. The goal of increased economic equality has also mobilized numerous social movements and rebellions, including America’s Populist movement and the French Revolution.
But how was this sharing of wealth to be achieved? Religious leaders often emphasized charity. Social movements developed communitarian living experiments. Revolutions seized the property of the rich and redistributed it. And governments began to set aside portions of the economy to enhance the welfare of the public, rather than the profits of the wealthy few.
In the United States, governments at the local, state, and federal level created a public sector alongside private enterprise. The American Constitution, drafted by the Founding Fathers, provided for the establishment of a U.S. postal service, which quickly took root in American life. Other public enterprises followed, including publicly-owned and operated lands, roads, bridges, canals, ports, schools, police forces, water departments, fire departments, mass transit systems, sewers, sanitation services, dams, libraries, parks, hospitals, food and nutrition services, and colleges and universities. Although many of these operated on a local level, others were nationwide in scope and became very substantial operations, including Social Security, Medicare, National Public Radio, the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. armed forces. In short, over the centuries the United States has developed what is often termed “a mixed economy,” as have many other countries.
Nations also found additional ways to socialize (or share) the wealth. These included facilitating the organization of unions and cooperatives, as well as establishing a minimum wage, unemployment insurance, and a progressive tax policy―one with the highest levies on the wealthy and their corporations.
Over the course of U.S. history, these policies, sometimes termed “social democracy,” have enriched the lives of most Americans and have certainly not led to dictatorship and economic collapse. They are also the kind championed by Bernie Sanders and other democratic socialists.
Why, then, does a significant portion of the American population view socialism as a dirty word? One reason is that many (though not all) of the wealthy fiercely object to sharing their wealth and possess the vast financial resources that enable them to manipulate public opinion and pull American politics rightward. After all, they own the corporate television and radio networks, control most of the major newspapers, dominate the governing boards of major institutions, and can easily afford to launch vast public relations campaigns to support their economic interests. In addition, as the largest source of campaign funding in the United States, the wealthy have disproportionate power in politics. So it’s only natural that their values are over-represented in public opinion and in election results.
But there’s another major reason that socialism has acquired a bad name: the policies of Communist governments. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, socialist parties were making major gains in economically advanced nations. This included the United States, where the Socialist Party of America, between 1904 and 1920, elected socialists to office in 353 towns and cities, and governed major urban centers such as Milwaukee and Minneapolis. But, in Czarist Russia, an economically backward country with a harsh dictatorship, one wing of the small, underground socialist movement, the Bolsheviks, used the chaos and demoralization caused by Russia’s disastrous participation in World War I to seize power. Given their utter lack of democratic experience, the Bolsheviks (who soon called themselves Communists) repressed their rivals (including democratic socialists) and established a one-party dictatorship. They also created a worldwide body, the Communist International, to compete with the established socialist movement, which they denounced fiercely for its insistence on democratic norms and civil liberties.
In the following decades, the Communists, championing their model of authoritarian socialism, made a terrible mess of it in the new Soviet Union, as well as in most other lands where they seized power or, in Eastern Europe, took command thanks to post-World War II occupation by the Red Army. Establishing brutal dictatorships with stagnating economies, these Communist regimes alienated their populations and drew worldwide opprobrium. In China, to be sure, the economy has boomed in recent decades, but at the cost of supplementing political dictatorship with the heightened economic inequality accompanying corporate-style capitalism.
By contrast, the democratic socialists―those denounced and spurned by the Communists―did a remarkably good job of governing their countries. In the advanced industrial democracies, where they were elected to office on numerous occasions and defeated on others, they fostered greater economic and social equality, substantial economic growth, and political freedom.
Their impact was particularly impressive in the Scandinavian nations. For example, about a quarter of Sweden’s vibrant economy is publicly-owned. In addition, Sweden has free undergraduate college/university tuition, monthly stipends to undergraduate students, free postgraduate education (e.g. medical and law school), free medical care until age 20 and nearly free medical care thereafter, paid sick leave, 480 days of paid leave when a child is born or adopted, and nearly free day-care and preschool programs. Furthermore, Sweden has 70 percent union membership, high wages, four to seven weeks of vacation a year, and an 82-year life expectancy. It can also boast the ninth most competitive economy in the world. Democratic socialism has produced similar results in Norway and Denmark.
Of course, democratic socialism might not be what you want. But let’s not pretend that it’s something that it’s not.
During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, U.S. foreign policy was characterized by repeated acts of U.S. military intervention in Latin American nations. But it began to shift in the late 1920s, as what became known as the Good Neighbor Policy was formulated. Starting in 1933, the U.S. government, responding to Latin American nations’ complaints about U.S. meddling in their internal affairs, used the occasion of Pan-American conferences to proclaim a nonintervention policy. This policy was reiterated by the Organization of American States (OAS), founded in 1948 and headquartered in Washington, DC.
Article 19 of the OAS Charter states clearly: “No State or group of States has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other State.” To be sure, the Charter, in Article 2(b), declares that one of the essential purposes of the OAS is “to promote and consolidate representative democracy.” But this section continues, in the same sentence, to note that such activity should be conducted “with due respect for the principle of nonintervention.” The U.S. government, of course, is an active member of the OAS and voted to approve the Charter. It is also legally bound by the Charter, which is part of international law.
The United Nations Charter, also formulated by the U.S. government and part of international law, includes its own nonintervention obligation. Attempting to outlaw international aggression, the UN Charter declares, in Article 2(4), that “all Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” Although this wording is vaguer than the OAS Charter’s condemnation of all kinds of intervention, in 1965 the UN General Assembly adopted an official resolution that tightened things up by proclaiming: “No State has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other State.”
Unfortunately, the U.S. government has violated these principles of international law many times in the past―toppling or attempting to topple numerous governments. And the results often have failed to live up to grandiose promises and expectations. Just look at the outcome of U.S. regime change operations during recent decades in Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, Chile, Cambodia, Haiti, Panama, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and numerous other nations.
Of course, there are things worth criticizing in Venezuela, as there are in many other countries―including the United States. Consequently, a substantial majority of OAS nations voted in January 2019 for a resolution that rejected the legitimacy of Nicolas Maduro’s new term as president, claiming that the May 2018 electoral process lacked “the participation of all Venezuelan political actors,” failed “to comply with international standards,” and lacked “the necessary guarantees for a free, fair, transparent, and democratic process.”
Nonetheless, the January 2019 OAS resolution did not call for outside intervention but, rather, for “a national dialogue with the participation of all Venezuelan political actors and stakeholders” to secure “national reconciliation,” “a new electoral process,” and a peaceful resolution to “the current crisis in that country.” In addition, nonintervention and a process of reconciliation between Venezuela’s sharply polarized political factions have been called for by the government of Mexico and by the Pope.
This policy of reconciliation is far from the one promoted by the U.S. government. In a speech to a frenzied crowd in Miami on February 18, Donald Trump once again demanded the resignation of Maduro and the installation as Venezuelan president of Juan Guiado, the unelected but self-proclaimed president Trump favors. “We seek a peaceful transition to power,” Trump said. “But all options are on the table.”
Such intervention in Venezuela’s internal affairs, including the implicit threat of U.S. military invasion, seems likely to lead to massive bloodshed in that country, the destabilization of Latin America, and―at the least―the further erosion of the international law the U.S. government claims to uphold.
In this fashion, the 1987 Soviet-American INF Treaty―which had eliminated thousands of destabilizing nuclear weapons, set the course for future nuclear disarmament agreements between the two nuclear superpowers, and paved the way for an end to the Cold War―was formally dispensed with.
Actually, the scrapping of the treaty should not have come as a surprise. After all, the rulers of nations, especially “the great powers,” are rarely interested in limiting their access to powerful weapons of war, including nuclear weapons. Indeed, they usually favor weapons buildups by their own nation and, thus, end up in immensely dangerous and expensive arms races with other nations.
Donald Trump exemplifies this embrace of nuclear weapons. During his presidential campaign, he made the bizarre claim that the 7,000-weapon U.S. nuclear arsenal “doesn’t work,” and promised to restore it to its full glory. Shortly after his election, Trump tweeted: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability.” The following day, with his customary insouciance, he remarked simply: “Let it be an arms race.”
Naturally, as president, he has been a keen supporter of a $1.7 trillion refurbishment of the entire U.S. nuclear weapons complex, including the building of new nuclear weapons. Nor has he hesitated to brag about U.S. nuclear prowess. In connection with his war of words with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Trump boasted: “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger and more powerful one than his.”
Russian leaders, too, though not as overtly provocative, have been impatient to build new nuclear weapons. As early as 2007, Putin complained to top-level U.S. officials that only Russia and the United States were covered by the INF Treaty; therefore, unless other nations were brought into the agreement, “it will be difficult for us to keep within the [treaty] framework.” The following year, Sergey Ivanov, the Russian defense minister, publicly bemoaned the INF agreement, observing that intermediate-range nuclear weapons “would be quite useful for us” against China.
By 2014, according to the U.S. government and arms control experts, Russia was pursuing a cruise missile program that violated the INF agreement, although Putin denied that the missile was banned by the treaty and claimed, instead, that the U.S. missile defense system was out of compliance. And so the offending missile program continued, as did Russian programs for blood-curdling types of nuclear weapons outside the treaty’s framework. In 2016, Putin criticized “the naïve former Russian leadership” for signing the INF Treaty in the first place. When the U.S. government pulled out of the treaty, Putin not only quickly proclaimed Russia’s withdrawal, but announced plans for building new nuclear weapons and said that Russia would no longer initiate nuclear arms control talks with the United States.
The leaders of the seven other nuclear-armed nations have displayed much the same attitude. All have recently been upgrading their nuclear arsenals, with China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea developing nuclear weapons that would be banned by the INF Treaty. Efforts by the U.S. government, in 2008, to bring some of these nations into the treaty were rebuffed by their governments. In the context of the recent breakdown of the INF Treaty, China’s government (which, among them, possesses the largest number of such weapons) has praised the agreement for carrying forward the nuclear disarmament process and improving international relations, but has opposed making the treaty a multilateral one―a polite way of saying that nuclear disarmament should be confined to the Americans and the Russians.
Characteristically, all the nuclear powers have rejected the 2017 UN treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons.
But the history of the INF Treaty’s emergence provides a more heartening perspective.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, in response to the advent of government officials championing a nuclear weapons buildup and talking glibly of nuclear war, an immense surge of popular protest swept around the world. Antinuclear demonstrations of unprecedented size convulsed Western Europe, Asia, and North America. Even within Communist nations, protesters defied authorities and took to the streets. With opinion polls showing massive opposition to the deployment of new nuclear weapons and the waging of nuclear war, mainstream organizations and political parties sharply condemned the nuclear buildup and called for nuclear disarmament.
Consequently, hawkish government officials began to reassess their priorities. In the fall of 1983, with some five million people busy protesting the U.S. plan to install intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Western Europe, Ronald Reagan told his secretary of state: “If things get hotter and hotter and arms control remains an issue, maybe I should . . . propose eliminating all nuclear weapons.” Previously, to dampen antinuclear protest, Reagan and other NATO hawks had proposed the “zero option”―scrapping plans for U.S. missile deployment in Western Europe for Soviet withdrawal of INF missiles from Eastern Europe. But Russian leaders scorned this public relations gesture until Mikhail Gorbachev, riding the wave of popular protest, decided to call Reagan’s bluff. As a result, recalled a top administration official, “we had to take yes for an answer.” In 1987, amid great popular celebration, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty.
Although the rulers of nuclear-armed nations are usually eager to foster nuclear buildups, substantial public pressure can secure their acceptance of nuclear disarmament.
The latest report from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, issued on January 24, reminds us that the prospect of nuclear catastrophe remains all too real. Citing the extraordinary danger of nuclear disaster, the editors and the distinguished panel of experts upon whom they relied reset their famous “Doomsday Clock” at two minutes to midnight.
This grim warning from the scientists is well-justified. The Trump administration has withdrawn the United States from the painstakingly-negotiated 2015 nuclear weapons agreement with Iran and is in the process of withdrawing from the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia. In addition, the 2010 New Start Treaty, which caps the number of strategic nuclear weapons held by the United States and Russia, is scheduled to expire in 2021, thus leaving no limits on the world’s largest nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972. According to Trump, this agreement, too, is a “bad deal,” and his hawkish national security advisor, John Bolton, has denounced it as “unilateral disarmament.”
Furthermore, while nuclear arms control and disarmament agreements crumble, a major nuclear weapons buildup is underway by all nine nuclear powers. The U.S. government alone has embarked on an extensive “modernization” of its entire nuclear weapons complex, designed to provide new, improved nuclear weapons and upgraded or new facilities for their production. The cost to U.S. taxpayers has been estimated to run somewhere between $1.2 trillion and $2 trillion.
For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin used his televised 2018 State of the Union address to laud his own nation’s advances in nuclear weaponry. Highlighting a successful test of Russia’s RS-28 Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile with a payload of 15 nuclear warheads, he also boasted of developing a working laser weapon, a hypersonic missile, and a cruise missile powered by a nuclear reactor that could fly indefinitely. Putin noted that the hypersonic missile, called Kinzhal (or dagger), could maneuver while traveling at more than ten times the speed of sound, and was “guaranteed to overcome all existing . . . anti-missile systems” and deliver a nuclear strike. The cruise missile, displayed on video by Putin in animated form, was shown as circumventing U.S. air defenses and heading for the California coast.
When it comes to bellicose public rhetoric, probably the most chilling has come from Trump. In the summer of 2017, angered by North Korea’s missile progress and the belligerent statements of its leaders, he warned that its future threats would be “met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” The following year, referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, he bragged: “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger and more powerful one than his.”
The problem that government officials have faced when engaged in this kind of missile-rattling behavior is public concern that it could lead to a disastrous nuclear war. Consequently, to soothe public anxiety about catastrophic nuclear destruction, they have argued that, paradoxically, nuclear weapons actually guarantee national security by deterring nuclear and conventional war.
But the efficacy of nuclear deterrence is far from clear. Indeed, despite their possession of nuclear weapons, India and Pakistan fought wars against one another, and, like the United States and the Soviet Union, came perilously close to sliding into a nuclear war. Furthermore, why has the U.S. government, armed (and ostensibly safe) with thousands of nuclear weapons, been so worried about Iraq, Iran, and North Korea acquiring them? Why does it need additional nuclear weapons?
Beginning in 1983, Ronald Reagan―under fierce public criticism for his nuclear buildup and disturbed that U.S. nuclear weapons could not prevent a Soviet nuclear weapons attack―initiated a nuclear safety program of a different kind: missile defense. Called the Strategic Defense Initiative (but derided by Senator Edward Kennedy as “Star Wars”), the program involved shooting down incoming nuclear missiles before they hit the United States, thus freeing Americans from any danger of nuclear destruction.
From the start, scientists doubted the technical feasibility of a missile defense system and, also, pointed out that, even if it worked to some degree, an enemy nation could overwhelm it by employing additional missiles or decoys. Nevertheless, missile defense had considerable appeal, especially among Republicans, who seized upon it as a crowd-pleasing alternative to nuclear arms control and disarmament.
The result was that, by the beginning of 2019, after more than 35 years of U.S. government development work at the cost of almost $300 billion, the United States still did not have a workable missile defense system. In numerous scripted U.S. military tests―attempts to destroy an incoming missile whose timing and trajectory were known in advance―the system failed roughly half the time.
Nevertheless, apparently because there’s no policy too flawed to abandon if it enriches military contractors and reduces public demands for nuclear disarmament, in mid-January 2019 Trump announced plans for a vast expansion of the U.S. missile defense program. According to the president, the goal was “to ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States―anywhere, any time, any place.”
Even so, all is not lost. Leading Democrats―including presidential hopefuls―have demanded that Trump keep the United States within the INF Treaty and scrap plans to expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Adam Smith, the new chair of the House Armed Services Committee, has called for “a nuclear weapons policy that reduces the number of weapons and reduces the likelihood of any sort of nuclear conflict.” Using their control of the House of Representatives, Democrats could block funding for the administration’s nuclear weapons programs.
And with enough public pressure, they might do that.
In March 2018, Forbes reported that it had identified 2,208 billionaires from 72 countries and territories. Collectively, this group was worth $9.1 trillion, an increase in wealth of 18 percent since the preceding year. Americans led the way with a record 585 billionaires, followed by mainland China which, despite its professed commitment to Communism, had a record 373. According to a Yahoo Finance report in late November 2018, the wealth of U.S. billionaires increased by 12 percent during 2017, while that of Chinese billionaires grew by 39 percent.
These vast fortunes were created much like those amassed by the Robber Barons of the late nineteenth century. The Walton family’s $163 billion fortune grew rapidly because its giant business, Walmart, the largest private employer in the United States, paid its workers poverty-level wages. Jeff Bezos (whose fortune jumped by $78.5 billion in one year to $160 billion, making him the richest man in the world), paid pathetically low wages at Amazon for years―until forced by strikes and public pressure to raise them. In mid-2017, Warren Buffett ($75 billion), then the world’s second richest man, noted that “the real problem” with the U.S. economy was that it was “disproportionately rewarding to the people on top.”
The situation is much the same elsewhere. Since the 1980s, the share of national income going to workers has been dropping significantly around the globe, thereby exacerbating inequality in wealth. “The billionaire boom is . . . a symptom of a failing economic system,” remarked Winnie Byanyima, executive director of the development charity, Oxfam International. “The people who make our clothes, assemble our phones and grow our food are being exploited.”
As a result, the further concentration of wealth has produced rising levels of economic inequality around the globe. According to a January 2018 report by Oxfam, during the preceding year some 3.7 billion people―about half the world’s population―experienced no increase in their wealth. Instead, 82 percent of the global wealth generated in 2017 went to the wealthiest 1 percent. In the United States, economic inequality continued to grow, with the share of the national income drawn by the poorest half of the population steadily declining. The situation was even starker in the country with the second largest economy, China. Here, despite two decades of spectacular economic growth, economic inequality rose at the fastest pace in the world, leaving China as one of the most unequal countries on the planet. In its global survey, Oxfam reported that 42 billionaires possessed as much wealth as half the world’s population.
Upon reflection, it’s hard to understand why billionaires think they need to possess such vast amounts of money and to acquire even more. After all, they can eat and drink only so much, just as they surely have all the mansions, yachts, diamonds, furs, and private jets they can possibly use. What more can they desire?
When it comes to desires, the answer is: plenty! That’s why they drive $4 million Lamborghini Venenos, acquire megamansions for their horses, take $80,000 “safaris” in private jets, purchase gold toothpicks, create megaclosets the size of homes, reside in $15,000 a night penthouse hotel suites, install luxury showers for their dogs, cover their staircases in gold, and build luxury survival bunkers. Donald Trump maintains a penthouse apartment in Trump Tower that is reportedly worth $57 million and is marbled in gold. Among his many other possessions are two private airplanes, three helicopters, five private residences, and 17 golf courses across the United States, Scotland, Ireland, and the United Arab Emirates.
In addition, billionaires devote enormous energy and money to controlling governments. ”They don’t put their wealth underneath their mattresses,” observed U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders; “they use that wealth to perpetuate their power. So you have the Koch brothers and a handful of billionaires who pour hundreds of millions of dollars into elections.” During the 2018 midterm elections in the United States, America’s billionaires lavished vast amounts of money on electoral politics, becoming the dominant funders of numerous candidates. Sheldon Adelson alone poured over $113 million into the federal elections.
This kind of big money has a major impact on American politics. Three billionaire families―the Kochs, the Mercers, and the Adelsons―played a central role in bankrolling the Republican Party’s shift to the far Right and its takeover of federal and state offices. Thus, although polls indicate that most Americans favor raising taxes on the rich, regulating corporations, fighting climate change, and supporting labor unions, the Republican-dominated White House, Congress, Supreme Court, and regulatory agencies have moved in exactly the opposite direction, backing the priorities of the wealthy.
With so much at stake, billionaires even took direct command of the world’s three major powers. Donald Trump became the first billionaire to capture the U.S. presidency, joining Russia’s president, Vladmir Putin (reputed to have amassed wealth of at least $70 billion), and China’s president, Xi Jinping (estimated to have a net worth of $1.51 billion). The three oligarchs quickly developed a cozy relationship and shared a number of policy positions, including the
In 2017 (the last year for which global figures are available), the U.S. government accounted for over a third of the world’s military expenditures―more than the next 7 highest-spending countries combined. Not satisfied, however, President Trump and Congress pushed through a mammoth increase in the annual U.S. military budget in August 2018, raising it to $717 billion. Maintaining the U.S. status as “No. 1” in war and war preparations comes at a very high price.
That price is not only paid in dollars—plus massive death and suffering in warfare―but in the impoverishment of other key sectors of American life. After all, this lavish outlay on the military now constitutes about two-thirds of the U.S. government’s discretionary spending. And these other sectors of American life are in big trouble.
Let’s consider education. The gold standard for evaluation seems to be the Program for International Student Assessment of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which tests 15-year old students every few years. The last test, which occurred in 2015 and involved 540,000 students in 72 nations and regions, found that U.S. students ranked 24th in reading, 25th in science, and 41st in mathematics. When the scores in these three areas were combined, U.S. students ranked 31st―behind the students of Slovenia, Poland, Russia, and Vietnam.
The educational attainments among many other Americans are also dismal. An estimated 30 million adult Americans cannot read, write, or do basic math above a third grade level. Literacy has different definitions and, for this reason among others, estimates vary about the level of illiteracy in the United States. But one of the most favorable rankings of the United States for literacy places it in a tie with numerous other nations for 26th; the worst places it at 125th.
The U.S. healthcare system also fares poorly compared to that of other nations. A 2017 study of healthcare systems in 11 advanced industrial countries by the Commonwealth Fund found that the United States ranked at the very bottom of the list. Furthermore, numerous nations with far less “advanced” economies have superior healthcare systems to that of the United States. According to the World Health Organization, the U.S. healthcare system ranks 37th among countries―behind that of Colombia, Cyprus, and Morocco.
Not surprisingly, American health is relatively poor. The infant mortality rate in the United States is higher than in 54 other lands, including Belarus, Cuba, Greece, and French Polynesia. According to the World Cancer Research Fund, the United States has the 5th highest cancer rate of the 50 countries it studied. For the past few years, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported, U.S. life expectancy has been declining and, today, the United States reportedly ranks 53rd among 100 nations in life expectancy.
Despite the fact that the United States is the world’s richest nation, it also has an unusually high level of poverty. According to a 2017 UNICEF report, over 29 percent of American children live in impoverished circumstances, placing the United States 35th in childhood poverty among the 41 richest nations. Indeed, the United States has a higher percentage of its people living in poverty (15.1 percent) than 41 other countries, including Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Thailand, Brazil, and Sri Lanka.
Nor does the United States rate very well among nations on environmental issues. According to the Environmental Performance Index, produced by Yale University and Columbia University in 2018, the United States placed 27th among the countries it ranked on environmental health and ecosystem vitality. The Social Progress Index, another well-respected survey that rates countries on their environmental records, ranked the United States 36th in wastewater treatment, 39th in access to at least basic drinking water, and 73rd in greenhouse gas emissions.
Actually, the findings of the Social Progress Index are roughly the same as other evaluators in a broad range of areas. Its 2018 report concluded that that the United States ranked 63rd in primary school enrollment, 61st in secondary school enrollment, 76th in access to quality education, 40th in child mortality rate, 62nd in maternity mortality rate, 36th in access to essential health services, 74th in access to quality healthcare, and 35th in life expectancy at age 60. In addition, it rated the United States as 33rd in political killings and torture, 88th in homicide rate, 47th in political rights, and 67th in discrimination and violence against minorities. All in all, there’s nothing here to cheer about.
Does the U.S. government’s priority for military spending explain, at least partially, the discrepancy between the worldwide preeminence of the U.S. armed forces and the feeble global standing of major American domestic institutions? Back in April 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower pointed to their connection. Addressing the American Society of Newspaper editors, he declared: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.” A militarized world “is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”
People infatuated with military supremacy should give that some thought.