Bernie Sanders' No-Nuclear Option

Bernie Sanders’ No-Nuclear Option

While Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic nomination has once again made some Americans audacious enough to hope for progressive change, there has been a conspicuous absence in Sanders’ platform of any intention to revise foreign policy and connect it to the concern with domestic issues that has dominated his platform so far. Sanders is yet to tell the American public where he stands on a number of fundamental foreign policy questions, issues related not only to the use of the military but also to human rights and independence movements. It may not be readily apparent to the American public, but domestic problems are all deeply connected to the US role on the foreign stage over the last seventy years.

Foreign policy in the 1968 presidential race

This weakness in Sanders’ campaign is evident if we compare it to one that is similar in many respects. In 1968, Senator Eugene McCarthy launched a campaign for the Democratic Party nomination, and like Bernie, he surprised the nation when his campaign turned into an insurgency that startled the presumptive hares in the race into panic mode. Robert Kennedy was assassinated during the primary race, and President Johnson decided not to run for re-election when he noticed the level of opposition to his Vietnam policy. At the convention, the favorite of the party leadership, vice president Hubert Humphrey, faced a serious challenge from the dark horse candidate McCarthy who had risen from obscurity in a matter of months.
During the convention in Chicago, protesters on the streets were met with the violent suppression of a police force under the command of Democratic mayor Richard Daley. Inside the convention, the party leadership was focused on the need to nominate a moderate candidate who could beat the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, in the November election. The party brass feared that McCarthy wouldn’t stand a chance running against Nixon, and they did everything possible to make sure the nomination would go to Humphrey, who lost to Nixon anyway. McCarthy alleged that the nomination had been rigged by party bosses, and in fact there was a precedent for this much earlier in the 1944 convention when Harry Truman got the vice presidential nomination instead of the New Deal progressive Henry Wallace. That fateful manipulation is seen by some historians as the change that set America on its ruinous path of Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union. [1]
In his article The Ghost of Liberal Democrats Past, Lance Selfa wrote a more thorough account of McCarthy’s campaign, as well as the stories of other leftist Democrat candidates whose platforms disappeared into the mainstream of the party:

… it is worth noting that much of what is being said on the left today about Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign was said about Jackson’s campaigns in the 1980s… consider how the 2000s campaigns of former Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich disappointed their left supporters. Both Jackson and Kucinich ultimately delivered supporters to the more conservative Democrats against whom they had mounted their challenges in the first place. They did this so effectively and seamlessly that it must be said their campaigns aimed to do this from the start. Candidates like Jackson or Kucinich occasionally flirted with the rhetoric of breaking with the Democrats, but their clear commitment in practice was to bring people disenchanted with the party into the Democratic orbit. And meanwhile, Sanders, for his part, won’t even use the rhetoric—he has ruled out running outside the Democratic Party… For those who want to build a stronger left in the U.S., there is no substitute for the work of… organizing a political alternative independent of the Democratic Party. [2]

The starkest difference between McCarthy and Sanders is that the campaign of the former was almost entirely based on a single foreign policy issue: withdrawal from Vietnam. Young men from all social strata were eligible for the draft, even though the lower socio-economic levels and African-Americans were much more likely to end up in boots on the ground in Vietnam. The draft meant that every family had a stake in the game, so an anti-war candidate like McCarthy gathered enough support to be a serious contender for the Democratic nomination. This may be why the draft was never reinstated. One might think that conservatives would prefer to have compulsory military service, but a nation with a certain degree of democratic control can’t be at constant war because draftees, and the people who care about them, vote against wars that have no obvious connection to self-defense.
The focus on foreign policy in 1968 was possible also because domestic issues were, relative to today, not as much of a concern. Racial inequality was, legitimately, the main domestic problem, but in other respects it was a comparative golden era. If there were economic worries, they were coming from corporations that were beginning to fear the impact of the war on profits.
Many critics of today’s Republicans point out that on domestic policies, Nixon would today seem quite liberal, even to the left of Bill Clinton in the 1990s. In 1968, the public education system was functioning, unemployment was low, and government was spending big on NASA and other research programs. It was before the oil shock and inflation of the 1970s, and the neoliberal assault on the domestic and global economy (the promotion of privatization, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade, and reduced government spending) was yet to begin. With the basic needs of the public largely met, a greater segment of the electorate had the luxury of not being pre-occupied with personal economic survival. They could focus on the big issues that stood a chance of fixing systemic problems: nuclear disarmament, détente with the Soviet Union, and curtailing foreign military ventures.

The economy? It’s foreign policy, stupid

By 1990, the Cold War had apparently ended, but there are still 16,000 nuclear weapons in the world today. One could ask if eliminating the redundant capacity for overkill, while leaving thousands of nuclear warheads intact and calling this “the end of the Cold War,” was merely a ploy to divert public attention from the excessive military expenditures that were set to continue.
Since the collapse of the USSR, America has maintained its control of the world, as the sole remaining superpower, through military and economic means—although this era may be ending now as China, Russia and BRIC countries are forming several forms of economic integration outside the American sphere of influence. The impact America’s imperial era still has on domestic politics should be obvious because foreign policy requires the labor of the domestic population to be organized according to its demands. It is a policy which, in addition to being a method of controlling the world, is also way to feed and house the population by directing the labor force into military service, national security agencies and weapons production. In a sense, since WWII it has been the social safety net, the sector in which one needed a job if one was to have health insurance, job security, a good salary, and access to decent housing and schools. As long as this policy succeeded as an economic stimulus for the private sector and in delivering social benefits to a large segment of the population, there was little political will to establish other sectors of the economy and other forms of social security.
In recent decades, the growing number of people living outside of this security blanket has created great inequality and social disruption, a trend which has turned the security apparatus against the domestic population—a downward spiral in which a security-obsessed nation houses an increasing share of the population in prisons. A cynic might also say that the increase in domestic economic insecurity was created deliberately, or welcomed, as a way of deflecting attention from America’s role in the world so that the problem of 1968 would never be repeated. Back then, when the domestic population wasn’t kept in such a precarious state, people started paying too much attention to foreign policy.
A case in point that illustrates the domestic dependence on the security state is New Mexico. A recent report in Reveal (by The Center for Investigative Reporting) stated:

For New Mexico, the second-poorest state after Mississippi, nuclear weapons and military bases are undeniably a lifeblood. Out of the $27.5 billion in federal dollars poured into the state in 2013, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts study, about $5 billion went to Los Alamos, Sandia and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nuclear weapons waste facility east of Carlsbad, where accidents last year exposed dozens of workers to radiation. [3]

The article goes on to describe in depressing detail just how deeply the military complex is embedded in American life. It is easy to denounce all this as rooted in corporate greed and the corrupting influence of lobbyists, but the problem is all the more implacable because no one wants to see the jobs disappear. No one wants to see Albuquerque breaking bad, or breaking worse than it has already since the defense cutbacks of the 1990s.
This is why not even the progressive hero of the hour, Bernie Sanders, is talking about foreign policy or discussing an alternative to the military economy. He has some great ideas for reform, but has little to say about how to achieve it. Higher taxes on the rich and corporations are a good start, but what happens after that?
Some commentary in alternative media has noted Sanders’ silence on foreign policy, particularly his reluctance to say where he stands on Palestine, but the problem goes beyond this one issue. While the US has failed to support Palestine, it has also failed to support Tibet, West Papua, and a long list of other human rights tragedies where the US could do good just by withdrawing economic ties and/or military support from countries such as Israel, China and Indonesia. Doing the right thing would require a complete abdication of America’s self-assigned role as master of the global order, and this would also entail a re-imagining of the domestic economy. One might add that a principled stance on independence struggles elsewhere would require America to face up to what is owed to Native Americans, or to the fact that the Kingdom of Hawaii has been illegally occupied since 1898.
Former inhabitants of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean protest against the past eviction by Britain and the US for the establishment of the Diego Garcia military base. Photo from The Guardian.
The article in Reveal about New Mexico’s economy gives an idea of what the stakes are. It also raises some mind-bending questions about the Kafkaesque absurdities that arise from the quest for security with a stockpile of 5,000 aging, operationally deployed but untestable nuclear warheads. [4] The defense labs in New Mexico are set to receive hundreds of billions of dollars for the modernization of the nuclear arsenal, but because of international agreements and belated environmental awareness, these weapons can never be tested. They just have to be maintained so that they are certain to function if they are needed. Nuclear scientists say it is like maintaining a car in perfect condition but never being able to turn the key. [5] If it ever were necessary to use the device, it would mean a global nuclear exchange had begun, which would negate the purpose of having the weapons in the first place.
Thus if it is a matter of operating a trillion-dollar economic enterprise on something that can never be used, we can ask whether this is really a massive fetish or virtual-reality game that only creates the illusion that meaningful work is being done. Since the nuclear tests actually are run only on computers, it seems that the enterprise really is virtual, and nothing but a make-work program for technocrats. They could just as well be paid their salaries for playing Second Life for eight hours a day before they return to their suburban homes in Albuquerque. This virtualization is perhaps an ironic correlate of the financial system which also no longer has a connection to the production of tangible goods that people need. However, while a few banks could easily be eliminated, the bombs overseen by the nuclear labs are real, as is the chance of an accidental launch. Furthermore, the accumulated nuclear waste from both the military and “peaceful” uses of the atom poses its own existential threats.
Future uncertain for cleanup sites dependent upon WIPP
Bernie Sanders says he will confront climate change, but he seems unprepared to tell Americans the really bad news that makes it much harder to imagine that a new New Deal could repeat the gains in prosperity of the mid-20th century. It is one thing to admit that global warming is going to be disruptive, but there are no politicians willing to suggest that life might be harder in a less energy intensive society, requiring everyone to have less but share more. No one wants to talk about the other catastrophes developing while we are preoccupied with the climate. For example, if sea levels rise, a great deal of social disruption will ensue, and it is doubtful that there will always be competent authorities watching over spent nuclear fuel during the next century. Seventy years into the nuclear era, there is still no final disposal site for all the nuclear waste accumulated from the military and civilian nuclear programs, yet this issue is completely off the radar during election campaigns. Political commentators sometimes refer metaphorically to issues that are “too radioactive” to talk about, but in this case the meaning is quite literal.

Repudiation of war as a means of settling international disputes

Once we understand that the United States is capable of creating money and directing its human resources toward the useless game of nuclear arsenal maintenance and nuclear waste generation, it is easier to start asking why only such deadly technologies are considered to have economic value. Could there be another endeavor for Americans to devote their labor to? What does America want to be when it grows up? Eventually, empires lose their steam and become ordinary countries. Rome became Italy, which in its modern constitution “repudiates war as an instrument offending the liberty of the peoples and as a means for settling international disputes.” Empires transform themselves or are transformed by outside forces.
After WWII, the US occupation forced post-imperial Japan to accept the famous Article 9 of its new made-in-America constitution, which made it, like Italy, renounce foreign military deployments. Conservative elements have fought against it ever since, and the present Abe government just succeeded in “re-interpreting” it so that Japan could join allies under attack in vague ways yet to be defined.[6]
Article 9 didn’t magically make Japan the peace-loving nation that it claims to be. It is a vassal state, dotted with American military bases and American nuclear weapons. It has rarely opposed American foreign policy or American sanctions imposed on “uncooperative” nations, and it has profited from American wars in Korea and Vietnam. During Gulf War I America asked for military support from Japan, but it was impossible to get because of the American-imposed constitution. Instead, Japan agreed to write a check to the American treasury for $13 billion. [7] When America handed West Papua over to Indonesia in 1967, Japanese corporations got a share of the natural resources.[8] The same sorts of benefits went to other American allies who have passively stood by while the world got carved up. Being a “peace-loving” nation should entail more than just staying out of the fight while sharing in the spoils and being rewarded for cooperation. Friends don’t let friends drive drunk on imperial ventures, but then again, nations that resisted America’s plans have always paid a heavy price.
Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, flawed though it is because of the circumstances of its creation, is at least a beacon of hope, embraced by the majority of a nation that had aspirations for peace after a ruinous quest for empire. America might be able to start solving its domestic problems if it started downsizing its military, like Japan, to what is only needed for true self-defense. Some might say this is ludicrous while Russia and China supposedly pose an existential threat, but parity with these other powers would mean only having the same number of foreign military bases as them—that is, almost none. If America really is destined to lead the world, it could unilaterally start to cut its nuclear arsenal and set the example for other nuclear powers to follow. If such a transformation happened, the Department of Defense could finally be concerned with defense rather than the projection of power to all corners of the globe, and there would be no need for the Orwellian-named Department of Homeland Security.

War and Money

The economic collapse of Greece has made many people realize that the financial assault on the country is just another kind of warfare, yet this shouldn’t come as a surprise. In fact, it appears that markets and warfare were always two sides of the same coin. The chartalist theory of money claims that money came into existence because it was a necessity for military expansion. [9] In order to send armies over long distances, kings needed a way to incentivize local people along the marching route to resupply the soldiers. Kings made coins with their likenesses on them, gave them to soldiers who then exchanged them for food and supplies. For the locals, the coin was a promise by the king to pay the bearer of the coin at a later time in goods of value. At the same time, the kings imposed taxes, and people were now doubly incentivized to earn coins—both for personal profit and to pay taxes to the king. This method succeeded in creating markets, expanding frontiers, projecting power, and getting previously independent communities to willingly submit to this new order because individuals saw in it a possibility of enriching themselves. I don’t see how any modern-day wage-earner, soldier, citizen or consumer could deny that the situation is much the same in the modern plutonium and carbon-based economy.
When people now say that we are at the end of capitalism, that we need a new system that is yet to be invented, perhaps they are asking for a new kind of currency, a system for sharing resources, that is de-coupled from the endless creation of weaponry and military expansion. This is the sort of fundamental issue that Bernie Sanders and other “radical” candidates seem determined to avoid. Instead they offer simple slogans about “getting big money out of politics” and giving Americans “a living wage” without mentioning the transformation of national values that would be needed to achieve such goals. Perhaps they think it is essential to dwell on fixing campaign finance reform first before actually talking about the policies that could arise from a government free of the influence of big money—a government that apparently exists out there somewhere over the rainbow.
Americans should be wise to this game by now after the “hopey, changey stuff” [10] they lived through in 2008, as well as all previous attempts by Democratic Party outliers to change the system from within. The two-party system in the US is run by an oligarchy, and with one party clearly no longer competent enough to run a small-town school board, its remaining purpose is to be a cast of useful idiots who can keep the center from moving to the left. Hilary Clinton will adopt some of Bernie Sanders’ rhetoric, but in the later months of the campaign she will point to a stage full of Republican clowns in order to scare the electorate into voting for the only “realistic” and “pragmatic” choice. I’ll leave the last word to Bruce Gagnon who came to similar conclusions after attending a Sanders rally in early July 2015:

My bullshit meter went off the charts last night. I’ve seen this song and dance before. But it doesn’t really matter what I think because those 9,000 mostly liberal democrats left the Civic Center last night thinking they have found another shining knight on a white horse to lead them to victory. But victory won’t be within their grasp unless we can talk about the US imperial war project that is draining our nation, killing people all over the world, and helping to increase climate change as the Pentagon has the largest carbon bootprint on the planet. Sure taxes on Wall Street speculation will help some but until we get our hands on the Pentagon’s pot of gold nothing really changes around here. [11]


[1] Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States, (London: Edbury Press, 2013), ch. 4 and 5.

[2] Lance Selfa, “The Ghost of Liberal Democrats Past,” Socialistworker.org, May 11, 2015.

[3] Len Ackland and Burt Hubbard, “Obama pledged to reduce nuclear arsenal, then came this weapon,” Reveal, Center for Investigative Reporting, July 14, 2015.

[5] Joseph Masco, Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico (Princeton University Press, 2006), page 252.

[6] Gwynne Dyer, “Gutting Japan’s Article 9,” The Georgia Straight, July 22, 2105.

[7] Hiroshi Nakanishi, “The Gulf War and Japanese Diplomacy,” Nippon.com, December 6, 2011 http://www.nippon.com/en/features/c00202/

[9] David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years, (Melville House, 2011), pages 46-52.

We can thank Sarah Palin for being right like a broken clock once in a while.

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