“three challenges to peace and disarmament activists in the U.S.”

Against the Current, No. 25, March/April 1990

Frank Brodhead

THE PROFOUND CHANGES occurring in Central and Eastern Europe appear to be having an equally profound impact on the prospects for peace and disarmament. Are these prospects real or illusory? And how can peace and disarmament activists in the United States respond creatively to these changes?

The cumulative impact of the changes in Central and Eastern Europe is to undermine the credibility of the “Soviet threat,” the rationale for our huge military apparatus. Longstanding corollaries of the “Soviet threat” are also jeopardized. For example, some substitute must now be found for the “Soviet military buildup,” which has justified military Keynesianism in the United States since the late 1940s. Nor can “Soviet expansionism” still serve to underwrite counterrevolution in the Third World. Even NATO and the “Western Alliance”—and indeed the “West”—begin to lose definition in the face of a retreating “Soviet threat.”

The medium- or long-term consequences of these events are incalculable. In the short term, however, the changes in Central and Eastern Europe will offer three challenges to U.S. peace and disarmament activists.

The first is to find a creative way to intervene in the intra-elite debate about the so-called “peace dividend.” One achievement of the Reagan years was to persuade local activists and city officials that little help could be expected from Washington. Consequently, new social programs meant new taxes, undermining prospects for a united social-justice movement, as constituencies and interests competed for a share of a shrinking pie.

Now, to the extent that the prospect of a peace dividend seems real, social justice movements can claim that the money is there, and the poor have a right to it. Social justice movements may also have powerful allies in big-city mayors and congressional delegations, who will demand that the issues disrupting their cities require vast inputs of federal funds, an alternative to the twin monsters of urban chaos and new taxes.

To me this situation seems analogous to that of twenty years ago, when disruption and instability in big cities forced governors and mayors to demand federal relief for the poor. Can a similar level of disruption be achieved by today’s social movements? Will the prospect of huge savings from military cutbacks divide the political elite and open the door to reforms for the poor?

Skepticism is appropriate; but the “end of the Cold War” could dramatically change the domestic political landscape and raise expectations that reform is now possible. As members of grassroots; reform coalitions, disarmament activists can use their knowledge about weapons systems and military missions to support popular demands that the defense budget be reduced and the money used for reforms benefiting the poor. In doing this, disarmament activists can make an important contribution not only to disarmament, but to build-mg a popular social-democratic movement as well.

Enter the “counterreformation.” Paradoxically, the U.S. military’s response to the events of the East appears to be a deepening of the militarization of everyday life, as the Pentagon seeks alternative uses for its forces. Evil is no longer safely headquartered in Moscow but is widely diffused. Drugs, terrorism, illegal immigrants, subversion and assorted “trouble spots” can now be attacked by a military machine with time on its hands.

Can a new crusade be manufactured? Our morn-mg papers tell the story. “Army, facing cuts, reported seeking to reshape itself,” headlined the New York Times on the eve of the invasion of Panama. “Army hoping Panama action will help in its budget battle,” headlined the Philadelphia Inquirer two weeks later. Where the post-Vietnam Pentagon generally resisted foreign intervention, claiming that the Soviet threat in Europe had to be its priority, each service branch now clamors for a piece of the Third World action. Thus a second challenge for peace and disarmament activists will be to combat and demystify Pentagon propaganda that new missions require restructuring, not reducing, the military.

Finally, the end of the Cold War will challenge peace-movement activists to pull up our ideological socks. The Cold War has produced generations of Intellectual mush within the disarmament movement. The broad unity required in the face of nuclear annihilation pushed fundamental questions to the back burner or off the stove entirely. What is the military about? What are we doing in foreign countries? What is the purpose of NATO now? What are these Democrats and Liberals really after? Is it true what they say about imperialism? Questions that have been repeatedly shelved in the interests of a bland unity can now be taken up. Let glasnost enter the bloodstream of the peace movement.

March-April 1990, ATC 25

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