I live at a unique point on the planet. Looking west out my Seattle apartment windows on a clear day, I can see the stunning majesty of the Olympic Mountains, pink when they catch the rising sun, purple at sunset. But gazing out my windows, I often cannot help but recall that 20 miles to the west, between my place and the mountains, is the Trident nuclear sub base at Bangor on the Hood Canal, location of one of the largest piles of nuclear weapons on Earth, and the largest concentration in the U.S.
The glacier-cut depths of the canal allows subs to quickly dive and sneak out to their hidden positions. Eight of the 14 Trident subs are based there – the others are in Georgia – each with enough firepower to cause a nuclear winter that would kill billions. Altogether the eight carry 720 nuclear bombs, close to one-quarter of nuclear weapons deployed by all nations. Around half are out at sea at any one time. In my darker imaginations, I visualize a mushroom cloud rising between me and the Olympics, presuming I had not already been blinded by the flash of the explosion.
But even in a time of rising tension between the world’s great powers, most of us still find it unimaginable that we will ever see a full-scale nuclear war. Surely the leaders of our world, as inclined as they are to playing great power games, would not be so insane. But anyone who has studied the history of how conflicts spin out of control, such as the events that led to the First World War, or the many close nuclear calls caused by false alerts and misconceptions, can have no such comfort. The leaders and systems of the world are too fallible to continue reliance on nuclear weapons for security. In fact, the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons calls for abolition. It went into effect last January, signed by 59 nations, none of them the nuclear states, all of which are busy upgrading their arsenals. For instance, by the end of the decade, the new Columbia class missile submarines will begin pulling into Bangor to replace the Tridents. Twelve are planned at around $10 billion apiece.
Overall, the world spent nearly $2 trillion on militaries in 2020, a real rise of 2.6% over 2019. The U.S. share was around 39%. A just passed $768 billionmilitary budget is one of the largest in U.S. history. When the world is facing multiple crises, including a climate spinning out of control, it seems beyond absurd to spend so much on weapons. A new report from McKinsey calculates that an additional $3.5 trillion in annual infrastructure spending is needed to reach net zero 2050 goals.
We are obviously nowhere close to the “freedom from fear” Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed as one of the Four Freedoms, providing a rationale for the U.S. entry into World War II. (I wrote about the first three – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom from want – in my last post.) “. . . freedom from fear . . . translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world. That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.”
Even as FDR was saying those words, he was in the process of building the greatest war machine of all time. He spent much of the Four Freedoms Speech, aka the 1941 State of the Union message, describing the buildup. He did not speak of a secret project he had already authorized in 1939, the precursor to the Manhattan Project which would go on to develop the first nuclear bomb.
The world FDR envisioned, where arms are reduced to the point no nation can threaten another, has never come about. Debates are endless about what would have happened if FDR had lived after the war, whether we would have seen the Cold War with the Soviets, or if we had whether it would have attained the intensity it did. But the fact is the war machine created by FDR never went away. It kept finding enemies – Communists, terrorists, and now the great powers of Russia and China. Even if FDR had lived, it is questionable whether it could have turned out any other way, because of drives within the U.S. itself.
William Appleman Williams, the historian to whom I have devoted this series, was dean of the revisionist trend in U.S. history that emerged in the 1950s. Williams and his cohort tracked the driving force of U.S. foreign policy to the economic expansionism that marked the U.S. from its colonial roots. Never truly isolationist, the U.S. was engaged with global trade from the beginning. But U.S. involvement in the world took a quantum leap in the 1890s. In the midst of the greatest depression in U.S. history up until the 1930s, a group led by Theodore Roosevelt conceived that the U.S. would have to expand into the world to absorb its surplus industrial and agricultural production. The 1898 Spanish-American War was one of the outcomes. Those domestic forces drive our “empire as a way of life” as Williams called it.
The U.S. has consistently sought to build a global economic order since then, in which all nations operate under a uniform system that allows free movement of capital and trade, and open access to resources, especially oil. Equally consistent is tension with nations that do not fully subscribe to this system, but seek more independent economic pathways. In the late 1940s, it was the east bloc led by the Soviet Union. In the world today, the major hold-outs are Russia and China. Certainly both are imperial powers in their own rite, and there are no innocents in such a crowd. But when one looks beyond surface issues, such as the Ukraine or Taiwan, tensions ramify to economic issues. Russia has a measure of economic autonomy through its oil and gas sector, which it uses to gain political influence. European left leader Yanis Varoufakis says the U.S. aim in its conflicts with China is to break into its now independent financial system and its tech sector, which has the world’s only peer competitors to U.S. tech giants.
Because Williams saw the U.S. thrust into the world rooted in its own drives for expansion, he saw the only solution to “empire as a way of life” as a democratic socialist political economy driven not by growth but by meeting human needs, ensuring “freedom from want.” He viewed a continental system as inherently imperial, and proposed re-constituting the U.S. as a federation of regional commonwealths, each with significant control over its political economy. That is the concept to which this series has been devoted.
Williams saw a U.S. released from the drive for empire engaging the world in another form. “ . . . I am not saying a new America will be isolationist or indifferent to its security . . . such an America will evolve alternate and more equitable associations with other societies. And such a new America will have considerable power and influence of a different and more consequential than that displayed by the existing imperial system.”
It may seem utopian in a world of giant nations and corporations to propose such a radically different alternative. But it is clear that what we have now is not working. We are not moving to “freedom from fear” and the reduction of armaments that would require, but going in the diametrically opposite direction. The vast resources entailed in maintaining and building up the world’s militaries also undermine “freedom from want.” Certainly, that includes our desire to leave a habitable planet for our children.
Through my life, I have seen and participated in waves of the peace movement, from the 1960s-70s protests against the Vietnam War, to the 1980s movements against nuclear weapons and wars in Central America and the Middle East, to the 2003 uprising against the second Iraq War. But today, the peace movement seems at a historically low ebb, while militarism reigns in both U.S. major parties. Even toward the liberal-left end of the political spectrum , many are taken in by war rumblings put out by mainstream media, failing to recall how they lied us into the second Iraq War.
But perhaps the weakness of the peace movement draws from a reality sense. We have not been successful. Wars have continued, military budgets (never call them defense) have ballooned, and the trend toward increased great power conflict has intensified. Consciously or subconsciously, we have recognized the basic reality lined out in this post. That the drive to war and conflict roots in that drive for expansion from the first colonial settlements on the Atlantic coast. As with so many other critical issues facing us, from climate to oppression of communities of color, we cannot deal with issues of war and peace on their own. The roots of our multiple crises are common and systemic, based in a political economic system whose imperative is growth and expansion, rather than sustaining people and the planet on which we all depend.
This is why the broad social movement for which Williams called is vital, one rooted in places and regions, developing alternative visions for political economies centered on meeting human needs. It may be that the wholesale re-constitution of the United States as a federation of regional commonwealths envisioned by Williams is utopian. But we need some form of alternative vision to move us toward a political economy that does sustain planet and people, and Williams’ vision can inform it. If we only realize it in pieces, we have still made a peaceful and habitable planet more likely for ourselves and our children. What might seem unrealistic today may tomorrow become the obvious necessity. It is time to begin drawing together those alternative social visions and organizing the movement to make them a reality.
 William Appleman Williams, America Confronts a Revolutionary World: 1776-1976, William Morrow and Company, New York, 1976, p. 199-200
This first appeared on Patrick Mazza’s Substack page, The Raven.