If you needed further proof of Bernie Sanders’s argument that most Americans stand with him on the issues, consider the reaction to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal. Despite attacks from the leadership in, or around, both parties, over 80 percent of voters support the litany of proposals advocated by the House resolution: job and income guarantees, universal health care, a cleaner environment, and lower socioeconomic inequality. Americans turn out, yet again, to be far less conservative than elites have maintained over the last half-century.
Nowhere has the gap between majority will and elite consensus been more conspicuous or longstanding than on US foreign policy. Trump’s election is perhaps the best demonstration of that fact. But there is strong evidence that most Americans were never “liberal internationalists” either. While it is notable that support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has waned in recent years, in polls Americans have consistently preferred diplomacy to military “solutions” before (and not long after) 9/11. Nonetheless, US soldiers and mercenaries are now prosecuting the latter in 80 countries, nearly half the planet.
This situation has prompted the left to call for a comprehensive alternative in US foreign policy. But the question remains, how, exactly, the left can make inroads against the “American empire,” as it is now casually described even on the right. Any talk of dramatically changing foreign policy must give serious attention to reforming the institutions shaping it. In part, that means creating organizations to compete with the “foreign-policy establishment”—“the blob,” to use its apt nickname. But the left might also do well to consider another idea that has fallen into obscurity: converting the military-industrial complex to peacetime work.
Since the end of the Cold War, the military has seemingly become “everything”—gas-station operators in Afghanistan, concert promoters in Africa, and now, potential contractors to build Trump’s wall. Yet the defense industry has gone unchecked, even as the evidence is clear that it has corrupted the democratic process. Just as the popularity of the Green New Deal—and its focus on the job guarantee—can help us fight global warming, so too might it go a long way toward humanizing our foreign policy and creating a better economy.
Defense conversion is most closely associated with South Dakota Democrat and 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern, who made it his signature issue in Congress. A recession in the mid-1950s and the military cuts following the Cuban missile crisis gave him the opportunity to push the idea through the Senate, and in 1964 he called for a National Economic Conversion Commission (NECC) that would oversee the work. McGovern wanted to get the defense industry out of job creation, recognizing, as many liberal and conservative elites did privately, that the military-industrial complex was essentially a “gigantic WPA.” McGovern also wanted to free up hundreds of millions of federal monies for domestic welfare, to shore up the welfare state. But the Vietnam War killed the project, as his fellow Democrats denounced him as a “radical” in the middle of a war.
McGovern drew his ideas from the Columbia economist Seymour Melman, who made defense conversion his lifelong project. In his most famous book, The Permanent War Economy (1974), Melman argued that the military economy was a form of “state capitalism” whose “relentlessly predatory effects” had caused America’s economic decline. Melman brought an economists’ predilection for statistics and an activist’s zeal to what he called “Pentagon capitalism.” Americans, he insisted, had to eliminate unnecessary military spending if they wanted to prevent any future “Vietnam-type interventions.”
Melman had a comprehensive vision for defense conversion. He thought a combination of community-based groups, alternative-use committees, and federal mandates (such as a revitalized NECC) to enforce conversion could lead the country out of the war economy. The military-industrial complex, he argued, had robbed Americans of a manufacturing-based economy, with stable wages for the working class. The result was a “post-industrial economy” where wealth was stratified, jobs were scarce, and a few wealthy elites controlled the labor of most workers. It was the inequality produced by the military-industrial complex, he felt, that was the true tragedy of the Cold War, not just military adventurism and bloated defense budgets.
How Melman’s conversion plans would have solved the issue of donor pressure—of Pentagon lobbying—remained a question, however, even without Vietnam. Melman’s answer to this problem was to “send representatives to Congress who would reflect a nonmilitarist organization,” but even the most liberal Democrats were consistently opposed to military cuts in their districts, as they would be in later decades. The problem of the profit motive for military contractors, and how military profits insidiously influenced electoral politics and politicians (ones who aimed to squash conversion efforts), plagued reformers of the military-industrial complex.
The solution was left to Harvard’s John Kenneth Galbraith, who had a grander vision for defense conversion: nationalizing the military-industrial complex. His argument was straightforward. Arms manufacturers depended on Washington: Congress funded the research and development. Privately made weapons also routinely underperformed, and cost far more than estimated. By converting these already highly concentrated, essentially public firms into governmental nonprofits, Galbraith believed voters could “substantially civilize the incentive structure.”
Obviously, nationalizing arms production would not (immediately) eliminate the military-industrial complex. Like Eisenhower, Galbraith understood that private “merchants of war” were no more puppet masters than were generals, shadowy CIA directors, or presidents. All pushed for greater internationalism; all saw their powers, and budgets, grow enormously. But the only real way to shrink the military-industrial complex, to eliminate the private incentives for increased military spending, lay in severing the connections of for-profit business to national security. Nationalization was thus a necessary first step, before any systematic plan for conversion might be implemented.
Galbraith expected the proposal to get attention. (Liberals, he said, were finally beginning to show “a certain minimum of courage” about the Pentagon.) Instead… nothing. Conservatives, unironically, cried socialism. Moderates dismissed it as “fantastic.” Paul Nitze, the main author of NSC-68, said voters and politicians would never stand for it: The Pentagon was too important to America’s economy. Former secretary of state Dean Acheson crowed that Galbraith must have fallen under the spell of anti-war radicals. But letters poured in reporting enormous waste and support—from defense-industry workers.
Galbraith’s (and Melman’s) biggest supporters in the 1970s were labor unions. Indeed, despite the AFL-CIO’s deep involvement with Cold War foreign policy and support for the Vietnam War, union leaders such as the UAW’s Walter Reuther and the Machinists’ William Winpisinger backed the idea of conversion to a civilian economy. Over 1,000 labor figures even sponsored a “labor for peace” forum in 1972, demanding an end to American involvement in Vietnam and “to turn our country from the path of killing and destruction to the path of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness through peace, dignity, and full employment.”
But little changed. Even as Democrats became the more dovish party, few championed conversion. Meanwhile, the defense industry mirrored larger economic trends: declines in manufacturing, wage cuts, and a shift to white-collar labor. Austerity reinforced militarism at home, as defense jobs, with their good pay and benefits, disappeared—to much local anger. Nationally, however, support for more Vietnams remained low, despite a very loud chorus of bipartisan elites advocating incursions in Africa and Latin America in the name of anti-communism.
Reagan’s election in 1980 and his subsequent military buildup postponed defense conversion indefinitely. New York Democratic Representative Ted Weiss—who, like McGovern, was a discipline of Melman—consistently proposed conversion legislation once in office after 1977. House majority leader (and later speaker) Jim Wright remained committed to Weiss’s legislation for much of his tenure; but Reagan, congressional Republicans, and the Department of Defense killed Weiss’s (and Wright’s) bills by the mid-1980s.
The unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union forced conversion back onto the table. A series of grassroots campaigns with names such as the Arizona Council for Economic Conversion and the Coalition to Stop the Trident (many of them led by volunteers) waged across the country in the late 1980s and early 1990s pushed for alternative sources of revenue to the Pentagon. Faced with these pressures, 1992 presidential candidate Bill Clinton, who started his political career with McGovern, expressed interest in cutting defense to invest in transportation infrastructure, including “a high-speed rail network.” Yet again, however, liberals and conservatives proved no different in government, voting to keep the military-industrial complex going, even though the United States had become the world’s first truly uncontested superpower.
Nonetheless, potential countervailing forces remain. Considering the overwhelming support for the Green New Deal, which cleverly seeks to reduce global warming through full employment, the left might do well to ground its foreign-policy visions in reform of the military-industrial complex itself. Direct job-creation programs have always been popular, despite opposition from Republican and (more often) Democratic elites. The idea of establishing a public option, as it were, for unprofitable but economically productive and socially valuable work has also consistently won remarkable majorities. Herein lies an opportunity for proponents of the Green New Deal to regulate military contractors and finance job growth by converting the military-industrial complex to peaceful ends.
Galbraith’s idea of nationalizing the industry, likewise, offers a practical means for curbing the enormous pressure that military spending bears on elections. In so doing, it also holds out the promise of changing the huge gap between the public and the elite on US foreign policy. Because it is a private industry, free to lobby, Pentagon contractors reinforce the bipartisan echo chamber, from hiring ex-military brass and pundits without diplomatic or scholarly backgrounds to dominate the media conversation, to funding the “think tanks” on which Democratic and Republican presidents rely. The military-industrial complex is not just a product of the “foreign-policy establishment.” It protects and strengthens that establishment. It has served as too great a barrel of pork for elected officials, well-heeled donors, and (more understandably) US workers—so much that private contractors, now, reap almost 50 percent of the military budget. Any effort to reform this “industry,” to figure out how it can be a slave, not a master, of the public interest, is crucial. And conversion (via nationalization) might be one.