There is much talk in Washington just now of the “peace dividend,” the amount of money the Federal government will not need for defense now that we can see the end of the cold war. As ever, it’s not quite that simple. If we don’t think this matter through, we could end up baffled and angry and missing a once-in-a-century chance to reshape our government.
A sizable amount of money is not going to be freed up, at least not for years to come. The painful fact is that at the end of the cold war we are saddled with a war debt. That cold war went on for forty years, say from the time the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded in 1949 to, let us say, 1989. Toward the end we lost control of our finances. In eight years during the 1980s we borrowed the equivalent of 85 percent of the debt incurred during World War II. Interest on that $3 trillion sum rising to $4 trillion is now a fifth of the budget and rising; soon it could be its largest single item. Interest now consumes all the income tax collected west of the Mississippi. Interest compounds. David Broder points out that according to the President’s new budget,
with federal taxes pegged at 19.6 percent of the gross national product, Americans are paying more for the support of the national government than [they did in] all but three of the 45 years since World War II ended.
Two of these three years came in the 1980s.
Still, getting our finances in order will be the easy part. The hard part will be getting our government back in order.
The cold war changed us. We used to be pretty much what we started out to be: a republic which expected normally to be at peace. If we were more warlike than we pretended, we rarely prepared for war as if it were always imminent. (Even when it was. Back in 1941 there were pictures in the papers of young draftees running around on “maneuvers” brandishing broom sticks making do for rifles.)
With the cold war all this changed. We became a national security state, geared for war at all times. Instantaneous war. Tension to the breaking point. Was that a flight of arctic geese on the radar? Or Russian missiles? Seven and one half minutes to decide whether to launch our counterattack. Where was the President? Oh God, not in the shower. Get him out! I have heard presidents talk about this and wonder why none went over the edge.
Washington changed. In his wonderful new book, Our Country, Michael Barone reminds us that right up until 1933, when the Twentieth Amendment was ratified, the president was elected in November, took office in March, and then Congress convened the following December! That’s what the Founders provided: What’s the hurry? Soon there was nothing but.
The totalitarian state had made its appearance …
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Pacem in Terris October 11, 1990