10 years after the Berlin Wall fell, it’s time to junk the war machine,

By Robert Jensen

Published in Austin American-Statesman · November, 1999

[This article appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, November 6, 1999, p. A-11.]

On Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. A decade later, it’s time that one of the central myths of recent U.S. history — the story of the Cold War — should come tumbling down as well.

We have long been told that the purpose of the U.S. nuclear force and obscenely large military machine was to “protect” us from the Soviet Union and its surrogates. Now, with the evil empire gone, U.S. policy-makers have had to search for new enemies to justify maintaining those forces.

We are told Russia remains a threat, though it is not clear what the threat is or from which segment of that country it might emerge. China is supposed to worry us as well, though it is not clear why a nation we court as a major trading partner might want to wipe us out.

“Rogue states” are also cited as a justification. The most dangerous threat that politicians, military men, and weapons-builders can manage these days is North Korea, which we are told might have the capacity to build a couple of missiles to deliver conventional weapons. In the words of a New York Times reporter, we face a serious but as yet “unquantifed” threat there.

If the North Koreans can’t be sustained as a threat — likely given that half the population is on the verge of starvation — there surely will be others targeted. Nicaragua, Panama, and Latin American narcotraffickers, or Iraq, Libya, and Islamic terrorists — all at one time have provided the needed “threat.”

In resisting these empty attempts to justify the country’s bloated military budgets and nuclear arsenal, however, it is wrong-headed to argue that we no longer need the weapons because the Cold War is over. It is time to face the fact that we never needed them, that the Cold War was constructed by policy-makers not to keep the American public free but to ensure we remained cowed and compliant.

While the Soviets eventually achieved the capacity to destroy us (such is the nature of nuclear weapons), the claim that they were a global military threat to our very existence always had primarily political ends. The Soviet Union was a political threat, which American planners had realized from the 1917 revolution on and had sought to contain at home and abroad. The Soviet regime was authoritarian and brutal, and interventionist in its own sphere. But the main threat was always political — no matter how deformed a version of socialism the Soviets offered, they represented a challenge to the “natural” and “inevitable” domination of business-run societies like the United States, and U.S. business and political leaders were scared.

Though the Cold War was in this sense a myth, it was an amazing propaganda victory that played a very real role in shaping policy. It helped contain what U.S. planners seriously worried about after WWII: the threat of an independent Europe that might remain neutral as the United States tried to squash the Soviet challenge. More than 50 years later, the use of NATO to wage war in the Balkans reminds us of the ongoing success of the project of subordinating Europe to U.S. policy.

At home, the Cold War helped keep the entire nation in fear of the “red menace,” making it easier for U.S. officials to repress dissent, maintain a bloated defense budget to increase corporate profits (especially in high-tech industries) through military contracts, and pursue a brutal foreign policy that targets virtually all attempts at independent development in the Third World.

The lasting effects of this militarization continue to be felt, at home and abroad. We have spent a total of $5.5 trillion on nuclear weapons, and close to $300 billion a year is drained by the military. About 7,200 nuclear warheads remain deployed, keeping alive the threat of annihilation of the entire planet. Any nation that dares defy U.S. policy risks military or economic assault, or both, in which civilians will be targeted. And all the time it talks about world peace, the United States leads the world in weapons sales.

As we celebrate the exercise of human creativity and freedom that confronted the myths of authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe and took apart the Berlin Wall a decade ago, we must turn our creativity and freedom toward confronting our myths about the Cold War and taking apart the military machine and the repressive foreign policy that those myths make possible.

That is the task of free citizens in a free society, where no walls can keep us from the truth about ourselves.