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Historian Peter Kuznick says that in spite of his famous warning, Eisenhower can be called the father of the industrial-military complex; when he takes office, the U.S. has a 1,000 nuclear weapons, when he leaves, it’s 22,000 – with host Paul Jay

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PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network, I’m Paul Jay. We’re continuing our series on the history of the New Deal and the undoing of the New Deal. Now joining us again is Peter Kuznick. Peter joins us from Washington where he’s a professor of History and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at the American University. He’s also the co-writer with Oliver Stone of The Untold History of the United States. Thanks for joining us again, Peter.
PETER KUZNICK: Hi, Paul. How we doing?
PAUL JAY: So, we’re picking up the tale, sort of after Truman comes Eisenhower. There’s been an ongoing debate in the United States, and it’s still not over, about the relationship of military spending and social programs and where is the money gonna come from to pay for the social safety net to pay for the New Deal. The right-wing conservatives, they have always, and this has been going on for a long time but of course, we’re seeing a renewed bout of it now. In fact, as we talk, the Republicans are passing new tax legislation and essentially it’s lower taxes, lots of military spending, and taken out of social programs. This debate ain’t new, so talk a bit how this reflects itself toward the end of Truman and the Eisenhower years.
PETER KUZNICK: One of the things we need to mention to start off with is NSC-68. NSC-68 was proposed in 1950. It was drafted largely by Paul Nitze, who was very, very hawkish. NSC-68 was a new approach to defense spending. It called basically for quadrupling America’s defense spending. The idea was that now American policy has to be based on not what the Soviet Union was likely to do, but what the Soviet Union was capable of doing in a worst-case scenario. It looked like it was dead on arrival when it was first introduced in 1950.
However, the Korean War intervened. Once the Korean War started on a large scale, then they were able to push NSC-68 through. So, we see as after World War II, the demobilization, the decrease in defense spending, Truman tries to ramp it up again in 1946/1947 and then we’ve got a slow but steady increase in defense spending up to 1950. Then we see a quadrupling in defense spending. So, the military budget has gotten tremendously bloated between 1950, when NSC-68 was introduced and 1953, when the Korean War finally comes to a halt.
PAUL JAY: We’ve talked about to a large extent was the response to the deep crisis of unemployment, deep crisis of global capitalism, but by the end, coming out after the Second World War, most of the American elites don’t think there needs to be such an appeasement with the American workers. A lot of the elites want to undo some of those reforms. You have this big increase in military spendings. You have the Cold War, which helps justify all this. You have McCarthyism and, as we talked about earlier, even before McCarthy starts holding his hearings, there’s congressional hearings of Un-American Activities Committee purging the unions, purging schools, purging government, purging Hollywood of progressives and left-wingers. So, it’s all in this environment that the 1950s evolves. So, what happens to the New Deal-type reforms as Eisenhower comes to power in all of this?
PETER KUZNICK: Well, Eisenhower is a particularly interesting figure. He’s a military man but he’s a military man in a new era, in the nuclear era. I think it was three days before Eisenhower was elected in November of 1952, the United States tested its first hydrogen bomb. It was over the island of Elugelab. There was a mushroom cloud something like 60 miles long and the island of Elugelab disappeared into the sea. It was gone. That was our first hydrogen bomb test.
Eisenhower’s vision was that the greatest threat to the United States economically and security-wise was an unbalanced budget. He thought we could sink ourselves by too much spending. So, Eisenhower’s strategy was to actually cut defense spending. Eisenhower wanted to effectively minimize the army and go with the Air Force and our nuclear programs. The reason why Eisenhower was so hawkish when it came to nuclear weapons was because they were so much less expensive, they believed, than conventional defense spending.
So, what we see with Eisenhower is when Eisenhower takes office, United States has a little bit more than 1,000 nuclear weapons. When Eisenhower leaves office, United States has more than 22,000 nuclear weapons. When Eisenhower’s budget cycle is finished, United States has almost 30,000 nuclear weapons. So, that was the bargain that Eisenhower made with the devil, that the United States would be able to cut defense spending, cut budgets overall in the 1950s, but do so by this massive increase in nuclear weapons. So, the vision that a lot of the scientists had and Henry Wallace had in 1945, this fear of this apocalypse that we were creating potentially, now came to fruition under Eisenhower. We’ve got the capability, this overkill capacity, by the end of the Eisenhower administration to not only eliminate ourselves, let’s eliminate everybody on the planet several times over.
PAUL JAY: Eisenhower often gets quoted, there’’s this famous quote of Eisenhower about “Beware of the military-industrial complex.” But when you read that, it’s not that he doesn’t think there needs to be a military-industrial complex, he does, he just thinks beware of how the political effect of having such a massive part of the economy devoted to arms manufacturing. But he’s not really for minimizing it, he’s just for being beware of it.
PETER KUZNICK: He’s afraid that it was growing out of control and he had good reason to fear that because he had created the military-industrial complex. Eisenhower, almost as much as anybody, perhaps more than anybody else, can be considered the father of the military-industrial complex, in the worse sense of the military-industrial complex, in the sense that we’re creating the seeds of our own annihilation through this process.
So, it wasn’t only the extent to which they subverted normal democracy in America, and we’ve seen the effects of the arms lobby. In fact, in the original draft of the speech that Malcolm Moos from Johns Hopkins had written of the military-industrial complex speech, along with Williams, they talked about the merchants of death. They go back to the 1930s term that was so popular to talk about the arms merchants from World War I, and they bring that up at the first draft. Eisenhower said he wanted to go with that kind of vision about a military establishment that was out of control, in bed with industry, threatening us all, but his final version was not actually as strong as the initial versions that were drafted for that speech.
PAUL JAY: Now, what happens in terms of the New Deal legislation during Eisenhower?
PETER KUZNICK: Well, I think that Adlai Stevenson probably got it correct. Adlai Stevenson was the Democratic candidate who ran against Eisenhower in 1952. Eisenhower said “The New Dealers have all left Washington and been replaced by the car dealers,” and that was the Eisenhower administration. It was a cabinet of millionaires. Now, that’s not so shocking. Now, we’ve got a cabinet of billionaires. But the idea in the 1950s that you would have a cabinet of millionaires seemed obscene to many people, and so Eisenhower told them be careful. Let’s not say anything that’s gonna offend public sensitivities when it comes to how wealthy this cabinet is.
Unfortunately, they didn’t all get the message. There were two Charles E. Wilsons at the time. There was “Engine Charlie,” the head of GM and then there was “Electric Charlie,” the head of GE. Well, “Engine Charlie” became the Defense Secretary in the 1950s. He made some comments talking about the unemployed as kennel-fed dogs, which is the opposite message that Eisenhower’s trying to set. The word started to spread at time that Wilson, when he was head of GM, developed the automatic transmission so he’d always have one foot free to put in his mouth.
But this was the kind of cabinet that they had, it was a very wealthy cabinet and the administration policies, Eisenhower was fortunate, in a sense, that the 1950s were a time of relative prosperity in the United States in which everybody seemed to be, standards of living seemed to be improving across the board. Of course, they went up faster for some people than they did for others but there was still a time despite the fact that there was a major recession in ’57, that there were periodic declines in the 1950s but it was a time of relative stability. You have to remember, the ’50s was the time when we have suburbanization, we have a rapidly growing middle class and you’ve got people buying cars, buying automobiles, buying their own homes. The GI Bill made a lot of this possible.
Now, the people who benefited the most from the GI Bill were mostly whites, of course, but they moved out to the suburbs and so you’ve got these Levittown kind of communities developing. Many of them had covenants that said they weren’t even allowed to let blacks move in, other minorities move in. This was a time when the Donald Trump Seniors, the Fred Trumps, are having their restrictive covenants in their housing, in the apartments that they’re building, or they’re refusing to rent to African Americans. So, you’ve got this white suburbanization process developing in the 1950s at a time, again, of relative prosperity. And so…
PAUL JAY: Can I add when you, I think it’s important to say “relative prosperity” because-
PAUL JAY: … it was these sort of upper sections of the working class, the unionized sections in places like auto that were doing very well. The poverty rate was actually was very high.
PETER KUZNICK: And that’s why there’s gonna be a war on poverty in the 1960s, because poverty had not been eliminated, certainly. But we see the rise of the gun belt in the 1950s, rise of places like Los Angeles, the Southwest, Atlanta, areas that are gonna be profiting from the vast defense spending and the aerospace industry. We gotta remember the aerospace is really gonna get a huge boost in the 1950s, especially in the aftermath of Sputnik. We’re gonna see a shift in the economy once the Soviets launch Sputnik, which was launched on October 4th, 1957.
Sputnik, Eisenhower downplays the effects of that. He says “Oh, I’m not impressed. They’ve launched one small ball into space.” He says, “Not a big deal.” In fact, he went out and played, I think it was five rounds of golf that week to show that he wasn’t impressed with Sputnik. However, the next month, November 1st, the Soviets launched Sputnik 2. Now, this is serious. Not only did they send the dog into space but Sputnik 2 weighs six tons. That creates a tremendous crisis in American society because the Soviets had already tested an intercontinental ballistic missile prior to launching Sputnik 1, and the Americans started to panic. We set up a committee, the Gaither Committee, which issues a very, very frightening report. The Washington Post has a big front-page article saying that the United States is now facing the gravest crisis in its history. This is an existential crisis for the United States.
The view in the United States was that the, not only in the United States, actually around the world, was that the Soviets were ahead of the United States in scientific, technological and defense capabilities. Of course, it wasn’t true. Allen Dulles later commented, he said, the head of the CIA, or I think it was Allen Dulles, might have been John Foster Dulles, who said “I wasn’t concerned. I could see every blade of grass in the Soviet Union. I knew exactly what they had and I knew how far ahead we were.” Eisenhower had that same sense of certainty and security because we were having our U-2 flights and we were actually getting very, very good intelligence and we knew the Soviets were not ahead. The Soviets were actually far behind the United States but we still increased defense spending.
Eisenhower actually tried to tamp down the fears and tamp down the increase in defense spending, again, fearing we would bankrupt ourselves. But there is a lot of pressure then to reform America’s education system. The question was, while we’re so concerned with how plush the carpet is gonna be and with the fins on our cars, while the Soviets are spending money on education, on science and technology and they’ve outflanked the United States and they’re far ahead of us. That becomes a crucial issue in American society. The Democrats realize they’ve got an issue that can put them back in the White House. They can use this to run against the Republicans in 1960. Lyndon Johnson’s aides give him a memo that Johnson later trumpets, that says this is gonna put the Democrats not only in control of both houses but also in control of the White House again.
And Kennedy, John Kennedy is one of the ones who runs based upon what was called then the “Missile Gap,” the idea that the Soviets have got a vast abundance, a vast superiority in missiles, intercontinental ballistic missiles over the United States. And so, Kennedy and others do a lot of fear mongering about that, attack the Eisenhower administration for being weak on defense, for allowing the Soviets to get ahead of us and then in 1959, allowing the Cuban Revolution, a Communist revolution, 90 miles off the coast of Florida. This all comes together and becomes crucial in the 1960 election when Kennedy defeats Nixon very, very narrowly despite all that Kennedy had going for him.
PAUL JAY: Now, I think it’s important to kind of elaborate that sections of the American working class really benefited from all of this militarization. They benefited from the Post-War Expansion. Europe had been laid waste and so had the Soviet Union. American capital and goods were expanding all over the world. American hegemony was being asserted. A section of the American working class was going very well in riding this gravy train but a large section was not, and it wasn’t just all black. Unorganized white workers were not doing anywhere near as unionized white workers were. A real division was developing and this starts to build up as we head into the ’60s. But when we get to Kennedy, we actually see another leap in militarization.
PETER KUZNICK: One of the things that we saw in the ’50s, as we discussed, the Labor Movement takes a big hit when the Communists are forced out of the unions. But in the mid 50s, you have a pretty conservative leadership under…but you’ve got the merger of the AFL and CIO in mid-decade, which is gonna give the Labor Movement a little more strength. You’ve got the Reuther wing of the Labor Movement, the industrial unions that really had been making progress in the ’40s and ’50s.
I think, and don’t quote me on this for sure, but I think the percentage of American workers who were in unions peaks around 1948 but it’s still strong in the 1950s. It’s not until the 1950s that we begin to see a relative decline in the industrial sector compared to service and white-collar kinds of jobs. But American industry is still thriving and going strong in the 1950s. Based upon that, you’ve got more and more workers being brought into the middle class, or at least into having what we defined then as middle class standards of living, suburban lifestyles, owning their own homes, and so you’ve got a big, expanding middle class in the 1950s. But as you were saying, many, many, many workers are gonna be left behind and we’re gonna see the relative decline in the percentage of workers who are unionized beginning in the 1950s really.
PAUL JAY: And with Kennedy, as I said and you said, I think it’s actually the largest increase in military spending, was it, in US history, outside of a war? Am I right in the …
PETER KUZNICK: I’m not sure if you’re right in terms of the largest increase but we do so a sharp increase in military spending. I like to divide the Kennedy presidency into two periods: from Kennedy’s election until the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of ’62, Kennedy is a real defense hawk. Kennedy is a Cold War liberal from ’60 to ’62, but then Kennedy sees the light in ’62. And the last year of Kennedy’s presidency, he’s trying to roll back the hawkish Cold War policies that defines his earliest presidency. He begins, I guess off on a very bad foot with the Bay of Pigs. It was a fiasco. It was Trump-esque in its absurdity. Kennedy-
PAUL JAY: For people that, get it really fast for people that don’t know what the Bay of Pigs was.
PETER KUZNICK: In April of ’62, the United States-
PAUL JAY: You’re gonna have to, well, let’s wait till that’s over or take it off or something.
PETER KUZNICK: It’ll just stop in a second. Okay, ready?
PAUL JAY: Let me think about … We’re at 20 minutes now. Alright. Well, let’s really quick, we’ll do what Bay of Pigs is and then we’ll probably, is there anything specific about Kennedy and the New Deal legislation? Does he do any of that kinda reform stuff?
PETER KUZNICK: Not really. Kennedy didn’t achieve very much in terms of domestic policy.
PAUL JAY: Well, we should say that. Okay. Well, let’s start with Bay of Pigs and then we’ll maybe end with that. Okay, go ahead. The Bay of Pigs.
PETER KUZNICK: Yes. Kennedy inherited a plan from the Eisenhower/Nixon administration to overthrow the Castro government in Cuba. The CIA trained a large force of Cuban exiles to invade Cuba in 1961 with the understanding, the promise that they would be greeted as liberators when they arrived and the Cuban people would rise up and overthrow the Castro administration. Kennedy had his doubts from the beginning. He warned people that he was not gonna send in American forces to back up this Cuban exile force if they were in trouble. The assumption in the intelligence community and the Pentagon was that Kennedy would be forced to do so. So, the group goes in there, they invade, there’s no public uprising in support. The Cubans were ready for them. They captured or killed the entire invading force. It was a fiasco.
In the midst of it, you had the heads of the CIA and top officials of the Pentagon who had a midnight meeting with Kennedy, saying “You’ve gotta send in the American forces to bail them out.” Kennedy refused to do so. That’s when Kennedy begins to develop his doubts about the wisdom of the military and the intelligence people. He refers to the “CIA bastards, those joint chief sons of bitches.” He takes the power away from the CIA. He puts the CIA in every country under the ambassadors in those countries.
He says “I’m gonna smash the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it in the winds.” He says to his closest advisors, he says “If somebody comes in to talk to me about unemployment…,” he said, “I can challenge him, I can debate with them.” He says “But the military and the intelligence people, you always assume they’ve got some kind of superior understanding intelligence and insight.” He says “I’ve learned my lesson.” Another occasion, he said “First thing I’m gonna tell my successor is don’t trust the military.” He says “Even on military matters, they don’t necessarily know what they’re talking about.” So, Kennedy learned a very important lesson at the Bay of Pigs and he begins to doubt the military.
But then in June, he’s got a disastrous meeting with Khrushchev in Geneva and then after that things get very tense, and in July of 1961, we’ve got the crisis beginning, the Berlin Crisis. Kennedy makes a speech July 25th, which he announces an increase of defense spending of $3.45 billion. That sounds like chump change now compared to the level of defense spending we have, but at the time, that was considered an astronomical increase. Kennedy calls for a 25% increase in the size of the army. He wants to call up National Guards, call up American Troops, reservists as well. He calls for a big fallout shelter-building program in the United States. And then the Soviets respond with building the Berlin Wall.
Kennedy actually says that “In some ways, that’s a relief because a wall is a lot better than a war,” because it looked like the US and the Soviet Union were about to go to war in the summer of 1961. But then we’ve got this increase in harsh rhetoric continuing through 1962, continuing through the very, very, very dangerous Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962.
PAUL JAY: Alright, Peter. Let’s pick this up in the next part. We’ll talk about the nature of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But as the main focus of our series is on what happens to domestic legislation, but you can’t look at domestic legislation without looking at the military expenditure, as I said in the beginning. So, these two questions go together and obviously continue to. Alright. Thanks, Peter. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. Join us for the next segment in our series with Peter Kuznick on Undoing the New Deal on The Real News Network.

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Peter Kuznick is Professor of History and Director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University in Washington, DC. He and Oliver Stone co-authored The Untold History of the United States.