Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Michael Brenes's "For Might and Right"

Michael Brenes is Associate Director of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy and Lecturer in History at Yale University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, For Might and Right: Cold War Defense Spending and the Remaking of American Democracy, and reported the following:
From Page 99:
Some Cold War Democrats in Washington, D.C., also fought aggressively to defeat the [Limited Test Ban] treaty. Through their control of the Senate Preparedness Investigating Committee— a committee organized with the purpose of increasing military spending— Democratic Senator John Stennis from Mississippi and Thurmond held hearings where men like the hawkish General Curtis Lemay, who had close ties to the American Security Council, testified against the treaty. But the LTBT was approved in September 1963 by a Senate vote of 80–19, after being backed by considerable public support. The LTBT was unable to achieve a sustained d├ętente between the Soviet Union and the United States during the 1960s, but it was a milestone in the Cold War. The treaty was the first major accord between the two super-powers in the postwar era whose intent was to ameliorate the arms race. For these reasons, the treaty’s opponents viewed its ratification as the beginning of a process that would culminate with a communist takeover of the United States.
Page 99 details the legislative outcome following the debate in the U.S. Congress to ratify the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT), which prohibited atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. The administration of John F. Kennedy proposed the LTBT as a measure to ease tensions with the United States and the Soviet Union following the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. The treaty followed ambitions for a failed “Open Skies” initiative by President Dwight Eisenhower in the mid-1950s that would have allowed the United States and Soviet Union to monitor (through aerial surveillance) nuclear production and planning in each other’s countries for the purposes of international transparency—and to limit the fear of mutual assured destruction (MAD) through nuclear war.

Divisions among Democrats over the LTBT represent a central tenet of my book: Democrats’ support for massive defense spending in the 1940s and 1950s to fight global communism largely benefited the Republican Right and its domestic and foreign policy agendas. For Might and Right is primarily about how a bi-partisan coalition of national actors collude to maintain and increase America’s defense budget for both ideological (in the case of right-wing politicians, Cold War liberals, anti-communist activists, and military personnel) and material reasons (which motivated workers and corporate executives in the defense industry, labor unions, and community boosters in towns that depended upon military contractors for jobs.) Because of the Kennedy administration’s efforts to reduce tensions and cut defense spending after the fallout from the Cuban Missile Crisis, anti-communist Democrats (like Stennis and Thurmond) gravitated further to the Right—and worked alongside conservatives and Republicans to maintain and expand America’s defense budget. These “Cold War Democrats” then justified their hawkish positions with arguments that cuts in the defense budget would increase unemployment and decrease economic growth in the United States. And a strong economy is needed for a robust national defense, they suggested. This argument was appropriated by the conservative Right in later years, particularly by Republicans like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, who as president in 1981 oversaw the largest increase in military spending since the Vietnam War, and a time when the country suffered from high unemployment and wage stagnation. Increased defense spending solved America’s problems at home and abroad, suggested Reagan.

Page 99, and the book overall, shows how the Cold War became a problem for Democrats once some of them tried to abandon defense spending without limits—which many Democrats, or Cold War liberals, still supported after the 1960s. Republicans rose to political power in the 1960s and 1970s by claiming that Democrats had turned their back on the economic stability and national security of Americans. Members of the GOP would be the ones to restore American might, to “make America great again”—or so they said.
Learn more about For Might and Right at the University of Massachusetts Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue