It Doesn’t Have to Be a War

It Doesn’t Have to Be a War

The Trump administration appears ready to invoke the Defense Production Act to speed manufacture of essential goods like face masks. What if we didn’t have to resort to the analog of war?

An employee at a leather workshop converted into a mask factory in Italy (MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images)
Read more of our coverage of the coronavirus crisis here.

Suddenly everyone is talking about the Defense Production Act (DPA), a Korean War–era law allowing the federal government to expand and regulate strategically important industries. And for good reason: the Trump administration has announced it will invoke the DPA to speed the manufacture of masks and other protective gear needed for the response to the coronavirus emergency. The military frame of understanding has been welcomed by some on the left: Bernie Sanders was one of the first to call for the use of DPA powers, and a recent piece in Jacobin embraces the analog of war, calling for us to support Bernie as “our general.”

In the New York Times, historian Margaret O’Mara makes an eloquent case for the revival of government intervention on the scale typically associated with defense production. Despite the news tie-in to the DPA, which passed in 1950, O’Mara’s focus is nearly entirely on the Second World War. She implies there was little difference between military production during the Second World War and the Cold War—and specifically that in both cases “factories remained profit-making enterprises in private-sector hands.” Similarly, Vox’s Alex Ward introduces the 1950 bill as “inspired by laws from 1941 and 1942.”

But as historian Mark Wilson has emphasized, the Second World War mobilization involved a huge level of public ownership (both government-owned/government-operated and government-owned/contractor-operated plants). The Cold War, by contrast, saw a much more comprehensive privatization. In fact, the DPA itself was a crucial step in this process, since it outlined a way of expanding the industrial base without government operation or ownership. Ninety percent of new war industry was privately financed during the Korean War, compared to 40 percent during the Second World War. Loosely linking today’s DPA to the heroic popular efforts of the 1940s obscures the extent to which the level of Second World War–era public power was curtailed by the time of the early Cold War.

The DPA strictly safeguarded private prerogatives, but businessmen in the early 1950s still feared the law aimed at the “complete socialization of the productive capacity and credit resources of the country” (to quote a letter from the Delaware Chamber of Commerce to a Senate committee chairman). These conservatives were correct that the Cold War legislation had its direct origins in domestic political economy. Sections of the DPA were nearly identical to passages of Fair Deal planning bills that had failed to pass in 1949. Bertram Gross, one of the staffers who wrote the DPA, boasted that it was “a third step in a series started by the Spence Bill and the Murray Economic Expansion Bill.” A Republican congressman complained that the defense bill was “an effort to sneak over what these do-gooders were unable to do last year.”

Conservatives were also right that the bill’s provisions would come to cover a widening range of domestic situations, which the original debate never contemplated. In 1970, the Penn Central railroad, then the country’s sixth-largest corporation, went bankrupt. Fearing a wider financial crisis, the federal government stepped in to rescue the company (a move often seen as the origin of our contemporary regime of “too big to fail” bailouts). The government loans were guaranteed by the Pentagon under the DPA, because railroads—like all transportation networks—are easily presented as crucial to national security. A year later, when Richard Nixon instituted the first “peacetime” wage and price controls, the enabling legislation was an amendment to an extension of the DPA. The Penn Central bailout and Nixon’s controls are two of the central events of modern U.S. economic history, and they were both carried out through the provisions of legislation originally intended to build industrial capacity for Cold War rearmament.

Nixon was not the last to make use of economic war powers. Even before the pandemic emergency, Donald Trump had used, or proposed using, the DPA for a variety of purposes, ranging from merger policy to rare-earth magnet production to propping up marginal coal producers. The use of national security as a catch-all justification, already well-established in U.S. politics, has become even stronger given the worldview of Trump’s advisers. Peter Navarro, for example, has said, “This was in President Trump’s National Security Strategy, that economic security is national security. When we close the gap in munitions subsector, we’re not only improving capabilities for the war fighter but creating good jobs and good wages for the American economy.” In this closed loop, any domestic economic policy can be interpreted as a defense measure, and any defense measure can be thought of as economic policy.

In Vox, Alex Ward hints at this long history of DPA mission creep, but he seems oddly intent on making readers feel OK about this whole situation: “Some people may get scared or anxious hearing the act has been invoked because it makes it seem like the nation is gearing up for war. But it actually happens pretty regularly.” Ward’s source for this takeaway is Sasha Baker, a defense adviser to the defunct Warren campaign, who insists that the DPA was “really made for a moment like this.” In reality Baker’s cheery reassurance tells us less about history and more about the interest our bipartisan defense establishment has in perpetuating its own power (relatedly, Baker’s old boss, Obama Defense Secretary Ash Carter, proudly shared the 2016 Ronald Reagan Peace Through Strength Award with Dick Cheney).

It may well be that the DPA is the quickest way to get the masks we need (though the details of Trump’s actual execution of the procurement remain unclear). But we shouldn’t take the word of former Pentagon officials that there’s nothing untoward in the fact that our vital civilian economic policies must be routed through the rationale of national security. The defense justification is either disingenuous (we all know this isn’t a war, but we know that’s how we unlock money in our militarized society) or worse (we actually treat this as a war, with all the attendant implications for immigration and policy toward China). Instead of indulging these rationalizations, it is time—seventy years after the beginning of the Korean War—to motivate our economic planning in terms of solidarity and compassion, not defense against shadowy enemies.

And instead of the Cold War model that, O’Mara writes, “boosted the fortunes of contractors like Kaiser, Boeing and Lockheed,” this planning should be truly public. Private industry is not capable of mobilizing the needed resources. But even if it were, it would be a disaster for decisions that affect every aspect of our life to remain severed from democratic politics. In his response to the 2008 crisis, Barack Obama promised to make sure that “private capital” would fulfill “the core investment needs of this country.” The resulting policies stabilized the economy, but far from generating a New Deal–style constituency, the deference to private interests fed increasing public discontent with the establishment and laid the groundwork for political disasters, including the election of Trump.

The alternative we need today might look more like the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which began in 1935, outside of a war context, as part of the New Deal. In its eight years of existence, the WPA employed 8.5 million workers on useful public works. At first it was specifically forbidden from assigning workers to “munitions, warships, or military or naval materiel.” (The WPA was also forbidden from employing prisoners and discouraged from building or repairing prisons, a relevant precedent given New York State’s recent use of prison labor to produce a public option for hand sanitizer.) The regulations on munitions were understandably relaxed as the war ramped up in Europe. By October 1941, one in three WPA workers was in defense work, and the dream of full employment without an arms industry faded away. But with the Second World War even longer over than the Cold War, a return to the widespread anti-militarism of the 1930s is overdue.

We can also look to a more radical current of New Deal thought, characterized by the slogan “production for use.” In these proposals, the government would put unemployed people and industrial plants to work to produce consumer goods, which would then be provided cheaply or for free to those in need. The production of canned food was a poignant example in the 1930s, when fields of crops lay rotting while unemployed and hungry workers stood by idly. Unlike WPA-type projects of building parks or painting murals, this kind of activity would represent government economic power competing directly with private producers. As a result, production for use was never established on a widespread basis. The importance of not threatening capitalists was so keenly felt that even a WPA pest extermination program was nixed for the threat it posed to private exterminators. Since the mid-1930s, the only production for use the government has engaged in is military related (and, even there, private contractors have continually become more central).

While it is inevitable that we will refer to the scale of the Second World War as an example of what can be done, it is important to remember that the DPA represented a different form of Cold War mobilization, one which we should be more reluctant to invoke. More importantly, we should not immediately limit our demands for the present crisis with reference to military history: our demand should be for peacetime production of needed goods and services, and for public coordination of investment. It may be that, in the end, the coronavirus leads to a real global conflict, a prospect that will likely spell the ruin of progressive politics. There is no reason to resort already to the analog of war.


Tim Barker is writing a dissertation on the history of American defense spending. He is an editor-at-large at Dissent.


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