The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Is Reagan Taking Us to War?

Oct 31, 1981

Since Ronald Reagan has taken office, there have been a number of news stories which seem to herald a change in U.S. foreign policy. Today there are U.S. pilots flying AWACS in the Middle East to watch the borders of Libya. In July, U.S. planes shot down 2 Libyan jets. Immediately after that, came the incident with Korea and the U.S. reconnaissance plane. Reagan gave a strong indication that he was prepared to send U.S. troops into El Salvador, the first time since Viet Nam that U.S. troops would have been deployed. He also proposed a significant budget shift from social programs to military spending. The neutron bomb has been put into production and there are new plans for the MX missile and the B-1 bomber.

Because of all these war-like headlines, people pose the question whether Reagan is taking the U.S. toward a new war. Does all this mean that Reagan has ushered in a new foreign policy for the U.S.?

The words and appearances coming out of the White House on foreign policy are certainly very different than those that came from the Carter administration. But beyond the change in words, is there another underlying change in U.S. foreign policy? Whether or not there has been such a change, which we will have to examine further, it is clear that Reagan has put these scare headlines to other uses.

Words Shouted Abroad Have Uses Here at Home

First of all, for whatever other interests he is pursuing, it’s useful to Reagan that this kind of propaganda can bolster his fortunes as a politician. Public opinion polls, even though they significantly ignore the most disaffected sectors of the population who will suffer heavily with the cuts, indicate a growing opposition to Reagan’s cuts in domestic spending. A recent New York Times poll found that while 51% of those polled did not approve of Reagan’s handling of the economy, 52% did approve of his handling of foreign policy. Today, Reagan’s strong words can be his way to take advantage of the latent patriotic sentiment which such a finding implies.

More importantly, this foreign policy stance served as a means for Reagan and the Congress to justify such an enormous military budget just at the time they were making big cuts in the social programs. This was especially true with two specific incidents which were provoked just at the moment the size of the military budget was being debated: the shooting down of the two Libyan jets, and the supposed firing of a North Korean missile at a U.S. reconnaissance plane. At one point in July, the American newspaper headlines read like the U.S. was on the verge of entering a new war. But then all was forgotten just a week later.

The upshot of all this was not a new war. But we did end up with a very big increase in military spending. Even the bourgeois media, such as Newsweek, recognized that the timing of these events was suspiciously coincidental, commenting that perhaps the incidents were staged.

In reality, Reagan’s war-like talk gives a justification for the government to more directly give aid to the bourgeoisie. During this period of continuing economic crisis, the policy of the government is to shift the consequences of the crisis off the bourgeoisie by making the working class and the middle classes carry an ever greater burden. Part of this policy was the so-called tax cut. This cut was really a tax shift which will save more than 200 billion dollars for the wealthy over the next 5 years. But the heart of Reagan’s economic program is his military spending plans. He will take away dollars that were being spent on the poor and the working class through social programs, and shift the expenditures into the pockets of the wealthy through big new military contracts.

Behind his calls to patriotism stands a subsidy to the bourgeoisie of one and a half trillion dollars of defense contracts over the next 5 years. And very profitable contracts at that. The giant defense and aerospace companies like Rockwell, General Dynamics, and Martin Marietta, as a group are the most profitable heavy industry in the U.S.

It is not hard to see why the defense industry does so well. The defense contracts are generally more profitable than those from the so-called private industry. And they are virtually risk-free as well. The government pays these giants for their research and development cost. And through “cost overrun” payments, the government picks up the tab for most additional “unexpected” expenses as well. To give one example, in 1970 the B-1 bomber was originally bid out by Rockwell at an estimated cost of 35 million dollars per plane. After 11 years of inflation, we could expect the price to more than double to 75 or 80 million. Yet today, the price tag from Rockwell is now estimated to be 200 million per plane.

The major aerospace companies will not be the only ones to rake in profits either. These billion dollar defense contracts will go out to other industries as well. There will be billions paid to the likes of General Electric, TRW, and Pratt and Whitney for engines. Companies like Westinghouse and Hughes will make millions off new radar systems. GTE-Sylvania, Honeywell, IBM and AT&T will contract for communication systems. Exxon and Gulf will have multimillion dollar contracts for fuel. Giants in other industries will get into the act as well. Ford Motor Company is working on a 5 billion dollar sale for anti-aircraft guns. Chrysler already has the contract for the MX1 tank, which is worth some 8 billion. All told there are some 25,000 primary contractors, and up to an additional 100,000 subcontractors who will profit as well. Demand in steel, mining, electronics, computers, tooling and a myriad of other area will result as well.

One and a half trillion dollars over the next 5 years will be pumped through corporate balance sheets into the hands of the bourgeoisie. It is the major way the state intervenes to help the capitalists maintain their rate of profit when their system remains in a continuing crisis. They transfer, through the intermediary of military contracts, more of the resources of society to the bourgeoisie.

Robbing the poor to pay the rich is not a very popular idea. There is opposition to the cuts in social spending. The large turnout for Solidarity Day in Washington, D.C. on September 19 was one indication. Reagan tries to placate this opposition by appealing to patriotism. He says there is a need to keep America strong to defend against the Russians. He hopes that the fears of the working class and the poor can be focused on Russia, more than on what happens to them in this country.

Is There a Shift in Foreign Policy?

Obviously, Reagan’s domestic policy is heavily implicated in his propaganda about the foreign dangers. But the question remains as to whether or not there has been a real shift in U.S. foreign policy underneath Reagan’s verbal barrage.

Underneath all the scare stories, the unifying thread which ties them all together is the Soviet Union. He has blamed it for the problems developing in other areas of the world. But what change has there really been towards the Soviet Union, other than in words? It is true that the U.S. proposes to station cruise missiles in Western Europe to aim at Russia. And it is true that the neutron bomb is scheduled to be deployed, supposedly as a weapon against Russian tanks. But what does that prove? In the first place, the U.S. has never stopped its emplacement of weapons against the U.S.S.R. Moreover, by the Reagan Administration’s actions and its words, Reagan indicates he wants to continue to pursue the old policy of detente toward Russia. Secretary of State Haig continues to meet with Gromyko, and more discussions on arms limitations are planned for the future.

In Afghanistan, the propaganda against the Soviet intervention continues. Probably the CIA continues to be involved in some way. But there has been no really significant aid given to the rebels who are fighting against the Soviet troops. We should remember as well that despite Reagan’s talk against the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, it was Reagan who removed the grain embargo that Carter had put in place to punish the Soviets for this intervention.

In Iran, Reagan reproached Carter for not having a strong stance, but in fact Reagan has not actually done anything more than Carter did.

Since the end of the Viet Nam war, the U.S. has not engaged its own troops in other countries. But today there seem to be some changes in that stance. Two Libyan jets were shot down and now AWACS are flying in the area of Libya’s borders with Egypt and Sudan. In El Salvador, Reagan sent in a few military advisers and made loud threats of the possibility for preparing a new Viet Nam-type intervention. But so far, at least, while more military and economic aid has been sent to all these areas, there has been no significant military action.

On the verbal level, there may have been a change, but so far the change rests on that level only. For all the talk about troops and advisers, we should remember we heard the same kind of talk about advisers to Angola; and in actual fact, there were many more “advisers” in Iran to prop up the Shah than we see anywhere today.

Saying all this does not mean that there won’t be a change, either during Reagan’s administration or under someone else’s, but so far we have not seen it.

Does the Man Make the Difference?

It is not a particular politician who makes the basic decisions on such problems as the question of war. There are other causes, fundamental to the system, which lead to war. And there are objective circumstances, both economic and political, which force the bourgeoisie to re-evaluate its policies. Today, after nearly 8 years of serious world economic crisis, there is a potential for a dangerous instability in the world, at least dangerous from the viewpoint of the bourgeoisie. How many times in the last years have we heard the spokesmen for the bourgeoisie worry aloud about an international collapse of their system because of the crisis? And obviously all those political crises around the world threaten to undo the framework of control the American bourgeoisie has put in place. Wherever you look in the world, in the Middle East or Africa or Latin America or Eastern Europe, there is a tinderbox that could ignite to embroil an ever-widening area in war.

Any one of these kinds of conflicts could draw the U.S. government into military action – action which includes the potential of becoming a worldwide conflict including a showdown with the Soviet Union.

The bourgeoisie has changed its foreign policy before in order to try to better defend its interest in the world. And they could do so again. Moreover, any moment the bourgeoisie could decide to use the weapons it is building and go to war. When that time comes – and it surely will – it won’t matter if there is a conservative Republican or liberal Democrat in office as president. It is not the politician who serves the bourgeoisie that determines its fundamental policy for the bourgeoisie.

If the difference between the Republicans and the Democrats is significant in this regard, it is because it gives the bourgeoisie more maneuverability. The different images the Democrats and the Republicans try to portray allow the bourgeoisie to maneuver public opinion more easily. This has often been the case in times of war. The bourgeoisie has often used the fact that the Democrats tend to have more credentials with the ordinary layers of the population in order to lead the working class into a war. It was a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, who campaigned against the U.S. entering World War I, but who then sent American soldiers into battle. It was the Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt who was president at the time of World War II. The Democrat Harry Truman was the chief executive during Korea. It was a Democrat, John F. Kennedy, the popular liberal, who prepared the U.S. intervention into Viet Nam more than any other president. And it was the Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson who was elected over warmongering Barry Goldwater by promising never to send U.S. soldiers halfway around the world, who ordered half a million troops into Viet Nam.

No, it is not necessarily a tough-talking Republican who will lead the U.S. into another war. A liberal Democrat like Ted Kennedy would do just as well, if not better.