On Inauguration/MLK Holiday, thoughts on our society’s “Triple Evils”

January 21, 2013

Lead article today on Foreign Policy in Focus. Would love your comments regarding our nation’s progress on Dr. King’s triple evils of racism, extreme materialism and militarism.

–Kevin

What Would King Say of the Obama Era?

By Kevin Martin, January 21, 2013

martin-luther-king-barack-obamaThe coincidence that the presidential inauguration should fall on Martin Luther King Day provides much food for thought. Certainly, Barack Obama’s decision to use King’s Bible for his swearing-in ceremony invites progressives to make an unflattering comparison between the two—Norman Solomon did it quite well with his piece “King: I Have a Dream. Obama: I Have a Drone.”

But beyond simply castigating the years behind us or prognosticating about the years to come, there is a broader, riper opportunity in this coincidence. Let’s challenge our society to look at how well we are addressing what King called the “giant triplets,” or the “triple evils,” of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism, which he enunciated most notably in his April 4, 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech, exactly one year before his murder. “When machines and computers, profit motives, and property rights are considered more important than people,” he thundered, “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Were King alive today, he would be astonished to see how much more exploitative our capitalist system has become. Witness the demise of American labor unions, the offshoring of middle-class jobs to low-wage countries to maximize corporate profits, the worst income inequality since the rober baron heyday of the 1920s, and our ongoing addiction to planet-destroying, unsustainable, and finite energy sources. Not coincidentally, the corporate takeover of our government—accelerated by the Supreme Court’s disastrous “Citizens United” ruling—would likely outrage King, as it ought to all Americans.

And while there certainly are some positive, glass-half-full indicators of racial harmony that we can be proud of—much higher rates of interracial marriage being a significant one, to say nothing of the reelection of America’s first black president—there are many more devastating facts that can’t be ignored. There are more black men in prison than in college, surely one of our country’s greatest shames. Wealth inequality, a more comprehensive measurement of economic health for an individual or family, is even worse for people of color than income inequality, which itself remains sky-high. Our failed policies on immigration, the war on drugs, persistent racial profiling—one could go on and on about the challenges of our deeply rooted sickness of racism.

Even President Obama’s two election victories and the visceral reaction to them are instructive. In 2012 Obama got less than 40 percent of the white vote, and in 2008 just a little more—meaning John McCain and Mitt Romney, two of the worst major party nominees in recent memory (and that’s saying something!) got a lot of votes just for being white. And the hysterical right-wing “We want our country back…” often means “…from that black guy in the White House.”

Meanwhile, most Americans remain in deep denial about the evil of militarism. By any measure, the United States is still, as King termed it in 1967, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” and to further quote and appropriate King’s terrific phrase, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan must doubtless see U.S. troops as “strange liberators,” just as the Vietnamese did.

The United States is military colossus unmatched in history, spending almost as much on war and weapons as the rest of the world’s countries combined. We’re far and away the globe’s number-one arms dealer, and maintain somewhere close to 1,000 foreign military bases (even the Pentagon can’t give a precise number). For comparison’s sake, China just recently opened its first foreign base in the Indian Ocean island of Seychelles.

War has become normalized; ask anyone under the age of 20 if they can remember a time we weren’t at war.

Then there is our domestic culture of violence, which has too many manifestations to name. Our out-of-control gun violence, violence against women and LGBT persons and children, our startlingly violent movies and video games, and our incessant use of war and battle metaphors is just a start.

An extreme example of our country’s delusion about guns and violence was provided recently by Larry Ward, chairman of the “Gun Rights Appreciation Day” planned for inaugural weekend. When challenged about the irony of holding such an event on the MLK holiday weekend, Ward said he thought the event would “honor the legacy of Dr. King,” adding that if African-Americans had had guns, slavery might not have existed in this country. Brevity prevents a full deconstruction of these absurdities, but Ward evidently forgot that King was murdered with a gun.

Clearly the triple evils run deep in our society and don’t just stand alone. They are interlocking and mutually reinforcing.  U.S. military and foreign policy is manifestly racist (dating at least to the genocide of First Nations peoples), and mostly driven by corporate interests bound up in economic exploitation. Economic exploitation obviously has a strong racial component as well.

But the point of all this is not to concede defeat to King’s giant triplets—the point is to stimulate analysis, reflection, and ideas for action to address and overcome them. Racism, economic exploitation, and militarism are all human constructs, after all. We are not powerless before any of them.

For example, the Pentagon budget, while gargantuan, will soon begin to decline due to budgetary pressures and the end of the disastrous Iraq and Afghanistan wars. We can begin to rebuild by pushing for deeper cuts to Pentagon pork and putting the savings to work by investing in our communities. Moreover, creating a U.S. foreign and military policy based on widely held values of democracy, diplomacy, human rights, justice, sustainability, peace, and international cooperation—in short, a foreign policy for the global 99 percent—is not only possible; it’s the only antidote to our disease of militarism.

So as we celebrate Dr. King’s 84th birthday, let’s rededicate ourselves to building the Beloved Community he so clearly envisioned. Dismantling the triple evils and replacing them with positive structures and policies would be a great start.

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Kevin Martin has served as Executive Director of Peace Action and Peace Action Education Fund since September 4, 2001, and has worked with the organization in various capacities since 1985. Peace Action is the country’s largest peace and disarmament organization with 90,000 members nationwide.


The De-Mythologized History of the United States

January 7, 2013

Review of the Showtime television series “Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States”

(Note, this review was written after five of the ten episodes in the series had aired. Tonight’s episode, at 8 pm eastern time on Showtime is the 9th in the series.)

–Kevin Martin

What if, in the summer of 1945, former progressive prairie populist Vice President Henry Wallace had been president instead of Harry Truman?  Wallace likely would have continued as Vice President, and thus succeeded President Franklin Delano Roosevelt upon his death, if not for some serious chicanery by party bosses, taking advantage of the gravely ill Roosevelt’s absence, at the Democratic Convention in Chicago which installed Truman as the Vice Presidential candidate over the incumbent Wallace.

Would Wallace, a noted “dove” and advocate of global governance and peaceful policies, have ordered the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had he been president?  Maybe so, as there was so much investment and momentum behind the Manhattan Project.  But perhaps President Roosevelt, who held Wallace in higher regard than he did Truman, would have told Wallace about the Bomb sooner, as opposed to the way Truman was kept in the dark about the existence of the Manhattan Project (he knew nothing of it until he became president after Roosevelt’s death). Regardless, Wallace, as president, might have rallied support from the scientists and generals who did not support dropping the Bomb on Japan. Wallace might have been more patient about the clear but halting signals that Japan was about to surrender, and would likely have rejected the idea of “demonstrating” the Bomb’s unprecedented lethality in order to impress our Soviet ally of our military superiority, which many historians agree was the “real reason” behind the bombings.

Is this idle parlor game historical “what-ifing?” Oliver Stone doesn’t think so. The three-time Oscar winner wants you to think about these paths not taken, while also revealing some little known or underemphasized paths that were taken as he deconstructs U.S. post-War mythology in his ten part television series on Showtime, “Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States.” The series, narrated by Stone, airs one hour episodes on Monday nights at 8:00 pm eastern, with several rebroadcasts on Showtime channels during the week. The first five episodes have taken us from World War II through the early Cold War period of the fifties and early sixties, with five more shows to go. The next episode will focus on John F. Kennedy’s presidency.

The Showtime series is accompanied by a 750 page book co-authored by Stone and American University Professor of History Peter Kuznick, who also shares a writing credit on the TV series with Stone and Matt Graham. (Disclosure – Peter Kuznick, who also founded and directs the University’s Nuclear Studies Institute, is a colleague and friend of this reviewer.)

While it is certainly interesting and stimulating, Oliver Stone is not primarily interested in thought experiments about history. He’s a great story teller, and he aims to peel back the fascinating layers of history from a perspective that deconstructs or refutes many American myths. Such a project will no doubt challenge some viewers (and I’m sure it’s meant to!).

Take for instance the Soviet peoples’ role in defeating Nazi Germany, in which the over 20 million people died. Why is this undisputed fact so neglected in the West in favor of mostly uncritical worship of Churchill, Roosevelt, Eisenhower and MacArthur? Neither Soviet dictator Jozef Stalin’s atrocities nor the Cold War that ensued can diminish the centrality of the Soviet peoples’ sacrifice and heroism in absorbing, outlasting and ultimately defeating Adolf Hitler’s relentless, massive assault. This is especially true as the Western allies did so little throughout most of the war to help the Soviet Union.

Or the decision to drop the Bomb (that and the ensuing, mad nuclear arms race receive a lot of attention in the series). Why is this issue still so divisive and why does it provoke such defensiveness when the historical record is clear? The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were unnecessary; an exhausted and thoroughly fire-bombed Japan, fearing imminent Soviet entry into the Pacific war, would have surrendered under terms nearly identical to those obtained after the bombs were dropped. If the U.S. had been more patient and more interested in diplomacy rather than intimidating Stalin with this horrific new weapon, the atomic threshold needn’t have been crossed and over 200,000 Japanese lives would have been spared.

The most recent episode of “Untold History,” covering Dwight D. Eisenhower’s two terms in the White House, was quite the whirlwind. Despite the image of the 1950s as ho hum, a lot was going on! The civil rights movement, the assault on the Bill of Rights by J. Edgar Hoover, Joseph McCarthy and friends, the U.S. support of or participation in overthrowing the governments of Iran, Guatemala and Congo (and later Indonesia), the rise of the Non-Aligned Movement and the targeting of many of its leaders by the CIA, and the absurd build-up of nuclear weapons in “peacetime” all rocked the 50s and early 60s. The episode reminded me of books I’ve read on many of these events, and stimulated me to go deeper into some I dimly recall or know very little about.

Stone certainly wants to tell an alternative, “peoples history” in the proud tradition of Howard Zinn and Studs Terkel, but he doesn’t completely abjure the “great man” theory of history. The series paints rich portraits of some of the era’s seminal and neglected figures, such as Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, Wallace, Truman, Eisenhower and George C. Marshall. Stone and Kuznick were particularly interested in fleshing out Ike, exploring much more complex contradictions than the aloof, reluctant politician caricature which is too often the norm in his biographical treatments.

While the ’50s are remembered by many (and here I believe this refers to the dominant, white, Anglo-Saxon cultural view) as a time of peace and prosperity, with the huge expansion of the American middle class, the seemingly immovable foundations of the cancerous U.S. national security state were laid, or certainly cemented. Stone notes the irony of Ike’s “military industrial complex” warning in his farewell address, as he had done more than anyone to enable the growth of the MIC and the spying on Americans. Eisenhower himself said he left a “legacy of ashes” to his successor.

Under Ike, the nuclear weapons enterprise expanded from 1000 to 22,000 nuclear warheads (most far more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb) as well as the “triad” of delivery systems (bombers, land-based missiles and submarine-based missiles) and a sprawling, secretive, environmentally devastating nuclear weapons production complex. He also made it common US policy to  threaten nuclear attacks (on at least four occasions in his presidency, over Korea, the Formosa Straits, the Suez Crisis and the escalation of tensions over the Chinese islands of Quemoy/Matsu).

All Ike’s successors have considered or threatened to use nuclear weapons (including our Nobel Peace Prize winning incumbent, who continues to insist “all options are on the table” regarding concerns over Iran’s nuclear program).  Further, Eisenhower delegated authority to launch nukes to field commanders, who in turn did so to lower level officers, resulting in dozens of “fingers on the trigger.” Ike authorized a the development of a plan to nuke China and the USSR, which would have killed an estimated 600 million people and initiated a nuclear winter that might have ended life on the planet.

Again in the “roads not taken” department, Stone persuasively argues Ike could have put the world on a different path, as his popularity and military bona fides were so strong that nobody could have questioned his patriotism or devotion to national security, and the Soviet leadership was undergoing reforms and was ready, even eager, for a more peaceful relationship with the U.S. and the West. While Eisenhower is credited with avoiding war with the Soviet Union, he put the world on a dangerous path to possible annihilation, and presided over the “most gargantuan expansion of military power in human history.”

The series and the book, coming as they do at an important time politically (in the short run, Obama’s second term, in the broader view, the beginning of the end of the American Empire), also stimulate thinking as to what might be the “Future Untold History of the United States.” Fortunately, independent media now dig up a lot of dirt on the national security state, but we really don’t know what we don’t know, do we, regarding military actions being carried out in secret (but with our tax dollars)?  And then there’s the reality that most Americans pay scant attention to military and foreign policy.  

Of course, what we do know about the continuing accumulation of imperial presidential power under the allegedly “liberal” Barack Obama (drone strikes, kill lists, spying on U.S. citizens and other threats to our civil liberties under the guise of “national security”) is bad enough.

My guess is Oliver Stone, Peter Kuznick and company will be glad if their book and series stimulate critical thinking, and action, about the present, putting to good use lessons learned (at least partly thanks to their work) from our past.

Kevin Martin has served as Executive Director of Peace Action and Peace Action Education Fund since September 4, 2001, and has worked with the organization in various capacities since 1985. Peace Action is the country’s largest peace and disarmament organization with 90,000 members nationwide. www.peace-action.org


Towards a Foreign Policy for the 99%

December 18, 2012

published by Foreign Policy in Focus

Towards a Foreign Policy for the 99 Percent

By Kevin Martin, December 18, 2012

Relief, rather than elation, was probably the emotion most U.S. peace activists felt when President Barack Obama won re-election. While Obama has been very disappointing on most peace issues, Mitt Romney would have been all the worse. So what now to expect from a second Obama term?

Most likely, more of the same; anyone expecting Obama to be decidedly more pro-peace this time around is likely to be sorely dispirited. However, there is a diverse, growing peoples’ movement in the United States linking human and environmental needs with a demand to end our wars and liberate the vast resources they consume. This, combined with budgetary pressures that should dictate at least modest cuts in the gargantuan Pentagon budget, could lead to serious constraints on new militaristic ventures such as an attack on Iran, “modernization” of the entire U.S. nuclear weapons enterprise at a cost of over $200 billion, a permanent U.S. force of up to 25,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014, or an absurd military “pivot” toward the Asia-Pacific aimed at isolating Russia and especially China.

We in the peace movement need to be able to think, and act, with both a short- and long-term perspective. In the near term, swiftly ending the war in Afghanistan and ensuring no long-term U.S./NATO troop presence, stopping drone strikes, preventing a war with Iran and building support for a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, pushing for serious cuts to the Pentagon budget, and advocating progress toward nuclear disarmament will consume most of our energies. Renewed emphasis on a just and lasting peace between Palestine and Israel should also garner more attention and activism. Finally, peace activists will need to lend solidarity those working to save social programs from austerity-minded elites and to address climate chaos.

In the longer term, we need to hasten what Professor Johann Galtung calls “The Decline of the U.S. Empire and the Flowering of the U.S. Republic.” We have an opportunity in opposing the outrageous “Asia-Pacific Pivot,” which the military-industrial complex has concocted without asking the American people if we support it or want to continue borrowing from China to pay for it (too weird, right?). We can point out the insanity of this policy, but we can also devise a better alternative, including building solidarity with the peoples of Okinawa, Jeju Island, Guam, the Philippines, Hawaii, and other nations in the region opposing the spread of U.S. militarism and advocating peaceful relations with China.

Defining the Democratic Deficit

This pivot is just the latest example of the fundamentally undemocratic nature of U.S. foreign policy.

The more we in the peace movement can point out that our tax dollars fund policies contrary to our interests, the easier it will be not just to build specific campaigns for more peaceful and just policies, but also to create a new vision for our country’s role in the world—to create a new foreign policy for the 99 percent.

So we peace activists need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. We need to offer credible, sustainable alternatives on the issues listed above, with specific actions ordinary people can take that make a difference. But we must go further and advocate a foreign and military policy that is in the interest of the majority of this country, one that comports with widely shared ideals of democracy, justice, human rights, international cooperation, and sustainability.

It’s no news flash that elite and corporate interests have long dominated U.S. foreign policy. Illustrating this democratic deficit has two related aspects. The first is the question of access: “he who pays the piper calls the tune.” Currently, although it technically foots the bill, Congress—let alone the public—has barely any say in how U.S. foreign policy is set or implemented. On a second and integrally related note, in whose interest is it to perpetuate a gargantuan military budget, maintain a vast and expensive nuclear arsenal, or start an arms race with our banker, China? It’s hard to imagine that any ordinary person could conclude these policies serve anyone but the 1 percent.

Notions of justice and human rights are widely resonant in the United States, but they require careful consideration and explanation. “Justice” should not be invoked simply as it concerns parties to a conflict, but rather should entail racial, social, and economic fairness for all those who are affected by the grinding military machine. Emphasizing the broader social consequences of militarism will be key for growing our ranks, especially among people of color, community activists, and human needs groups. And while “human rights” is a no-brainer, it requires courage and commitment to communicate how U.S. foreign policy constantly contradicts this ideal abroad, even as our government selectively preaches to other countries on the subject.

International cooperation, while it can seem vague or milquetoast—especially given the neglect or outright stifling of “global governance” structures by the United States—is a highly shared value among people in this country and around the world. Selling cooperation as a meaningful value is fundamentally important for undermining the myth of American exceptionalism, which so many politicians peddle to sell policies that only harm our country in the long run.

Finally, while the environmental movement still has loads of work to do, the successful promulgation of the concept of sustainability is an important achievement, one we can easily adapt to military spending, the overall economy, and a longer-term view of what kind of foreign policy would be sustainable and in the interest of the 99 percent. Climate activists and peace activists need to know that they have a vital stake in each other’s work.

A glimpse of the power of democracy was in evidence on Election Day, and not just in the legalization of gay marriage and recreational marijuana in a few states. When given a choice, as in referenda in Massachusetts and New Haven, Connecticut advocating slashing military spending and funding human needs, people will choose the right policies and priorities; both initiatives won overwhelmingly.

Contrary to the hopes many people in this country and around the world invested in Barack Obama (which he didn’t deserve and frankly he never asked for), it’s never been about him. It’s about the entrenched power of the U.S. war machine, and about how we the peoples of this country and around the world can work together to create more peaceful, just, and sustainable policies. We can do it; in fact we have no choice but to do it.

Kevin Martin has served as Executive Director of Peace Action and Peace Action Education Fund since September 4, 2001, and has worked with the organization in various capacities since 1985. Peace Action is the country’s largest peace and disarmament organization with 90,000 members nationwide.

Recommended Citation:

Kevin Martin, “Towards a Foreign Policy for the 99 Percent” (Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus, December 18, 2012)


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