David lilienthal, the atomic energy commission, and the conflict over militarization during early cold war


Conclusion: Lilienthal, Anti-militarism, and the Counter-culture Connection



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Conclusion: Lilienthal, Anti-militarism, and the Counter-culture Connection

Twenty-five years after writing The Making of a Counter Culture, speaking of why the counter culture had sprung-up in the U.S., one prominent reason cited by Theodore Roszak was as a response to the military-industrial complex and nuclear proliferation:

Unfortunately, granting the military-industrial complex a free hand to set the political agenda entailed liabilities—like the cancellation of democracy. Or, worse still, the possibility of incinerating the greater part of the civilized world. The military-industrial complex was, after all, a system committed for its very survival to an authoritarian style and a paranoid geopolitical worldview. Otherwise, how to justify the expanding warfare state and endless arms race?...The Cold War was the lifeblood of the military-industrial complex, and the Cold War brought with it the balance of terror and a worldwide community of fear. Sooner or later somebody with his finger on the button was bound to miscalculate. But what of that? Intoxicated with apocalyptic power, thinkers in high places began to flirt with surrealistic thermonuclear scenarios of “acceptable casualty levels” that ran to a hundred million…tops.178
If combating the military-industrial complex and “thermonuclear scenarios” are qualities possessed by counter culturists, then surely Lilienthal’s name deserves mention relative to the counter culture. Not only did his efforts from 1945-1950 attempt to check the ever-expanding military-industrial complex, they were also aimed at stopping nuclear proliferation.

Not stifled by his hydrogen bomb defeat, Lilienthal persisted in opposing nuclear proliferation for the remainder of his life. In a 1975 New York Times op-ed titled “If This Continues, the Cockroach Will Inherit the Earth,” concerned with international nuclear proliferation, Lilienthal called for the International Atomic Energy Agency to “be the sole processor of the spent fuel from the safe atomic power plants,” so that nations could not extract plutonium from the spent fuel to develop atomic weapons.179 And only one year before his death in 1981, Lilienthal published his final book, Atomic Energy: A New Start. The book’s concluding words referenced back to the Acheson-Lilienthal Report and proposed a suspension of atomic weapons manufacturing:

An American sponsored moratorium on the production of more bombs could conceivably provide the breathing space for a new start, perhaps a revival in some altered form of the American Plan for International Control of Atomic Energy proposed by this country more than thirty years ago. That plan was based on the all-out world-wide development of the peaceful atom, using the world’s great need for more energy as leverage and incentive for the control and elimination of the dangerous atom, the bomb.180

The culmination of Lilienthal’s campaign against nuclear proliferation came in 1976 when he testified before the Senate Government Operations Committee. During the hearing, commenting on the potential for nuclear calamity, Lilienthal said, “The tragic fact is that the atomic arms race is today proceeding at a more furious and more insane pace than ever...We have to decide now what we can do now within our own capabilities to a prevent a bad situation from becoming disastrous.” And then with vintage Lilienthal optimism, he put forward that “Congress and the President order a complete embargo to the export of all nuclear devices and all nuclear material, that it be done now, and done unilaterally.”181 The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists lauded his testimony, claiming that “if the country had heeded the Acheson-Lilienthal plan thirty year earlier, the world would not be facing continuing nuclear peril.”182 From the drafting of the Acheson-Lilienthal Report until the end of his life, Lilienthal stayed involved in trying to find solutions to the vexing issue of nuclear proliferation. But although he battled the military-industrial complex and nuclear proliferation, there was much to Lilienthal’s ideology which starkly contrasted from that of the counter culture.

First on the list of differences between Lilienthal and counter culturists was the New Deal. Many in the counter culture looked disdainfully on New Dealers like Lilienthal who they perceived had cultivated government bigness which in turn spawned the military-industrial complex. Roszak writes that “the New Deal finished out its course by ushering in the military-industrial complex…which represents the highest stage of urban-industrial dominance.”183 More explicit in his critiques critical of the New Deal was Charles A. Reich’s The Greening of America. Reich viewed the New Deal as “a planned, rational America…where technology would take the lead in creating a better life,” but which caused “a transfer of power from the man in the street to the man from the Harvard Law Review”—to men exactly like Lilienthal.184 Furthermore, in Reich’s estimation, the New Deal “had convinced much of America that its people must be placed under the control of something larger and more rational than individual self-restraint; that individual must, for the good of all, become part of a system.”185 As for the New Deal’s legacy, Reich writes, “The lasting product of the New Deal era was not its humanism or idealism, but a new consciousness that believed primarily in the domination and the necessity for living under domination.”186 Although possibly applauding Lilienthal’s anti-militarization energies, Reich placed blame squarely on New Dealers whose penchant for big government made the military-industrial complex possible.

Like Reich, Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man equated technology with domination and totalitarianism: “Technological rationality reveals its political character as it becomes the great vehicle of better domination, creating a truly totalitarian universe.”187 Also connecting totalitarianism with technology is Roszak who asserted, “So subtle and well rationalized have the arts of technocratic domination become in our advanced industrial societies that even those in the state and/or corporate structure who dominate our lives must find it impossible to conceive of themselves as the agents of totalitarian control.”188 Speaking of how the counter culture viewed a technological society, Thomas P. Hughes notes that counter culturists “believed that the rational values of the technological society posed a deadly threat to individual freedom.”189 Lilienthal saw the situation in an entirely different light.

Going back to 1944 in TVA: Democracy on the March, Lilienthal believed that technology and democracy led to increased individual freedoms instead of repression. The same theme, that technology inspired freedom, is again spouted by Lilienthal in his 1952 Big Business: A New Era in which he writes:

There is a new dream: a world of great machines, with man in control, devising and making use of these inanimate creatures to build a new kind of independence, a new awareness of beauty, a new spirit of brotherliness.

The brain of man conceived these fabulous machines, and the intellect of man can master them to further the highest purposes of human freedom and culture.190
In fact, Lilienthal was such an ardent believer in technology as the world’s saving grace, in 1953 he formed Development and Research Company (D&R)—a privatized TVA of sorts. Following in the tradition of the TVA, D&R sought to assist depressed areas of the world through engineering and technology. Before it folded in 1979, among some of the places D&R had established contracts with were Africa, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Italy, and Iran.

Also significantly contrasting from the counter culture were the ideas Lilienthal put forward in his1953 book Big Business: A New Era. In Big Business Lilienthal argued against anti-trust legislation and called for a Basic Economic Act to judge business, not in terms of bigness, but instead in terms of how it furthered the public interest. That the book seemingly was a call for a private TVA was not lost on critics. Richard Hofstadter remarked, “Lilienthal’s more recent defense of big business does not represent a conversion to a new philosophy but simply an ability to find in private organization many of the same virtues that as TVA administrator he found in public enterprise.”191 Neuse’s criticisms of the book noted Lilienthal’s duplicitous ways: “In spite of his grass roots rhetoric, Lilienthal had been a proponent of bigness since the TVA days—first as director of the largest public power producer in the nation and then as leader as an industrial monopoly over the greatest source of power in the world.”192 Whereas the New Deal saw big government and technology as protecting people from economic uncertainties, uplifting them from depression and increasing their freedoms, the counter culture saw government bigness and technology as canceling civil liberties and producing a totalitarian environment.

Lilienthal never envisioned his anti-militarization efforts as part of the counter culture. In fact he seldom mentioned the counter culture in his journals. However, his occasional reference to it was not ever critical. In September of 1968, while walking the streets of New York and seeing Hippies he was reminded of his own youth: “So they do go without washing their feet, sit around for hours whanging those guitars, and all the rest. So they are full of catch phrases about ‘the Establishment’ and tearing down the ‘power structure.’ So they don’t have a cause, any sense of what they would do to make things better, as I did as a young rebel and radical—well, let them have fun.”193 It is difficult to measure what impact counter culture “catch phrases” and Roszakian literature had on the nation’s militarization. More intelligible are Lilienthal’s post-war efforts in ousting Groves and keeping the atomic arsenal in civilian hands. The early stages of the Cold War were a time of nervousness and fear and there can be little blame assigned to any individual who was engaged in the battle to shape atomic policy. Whether it was the isolationism of Groves and Hickenlooper or the internationalism of Lilienthal, in this time of great uncertainty, all were motivated by principles they thought best for the country.

Yes, modern American history, as Sherry rightly points out, has been dominated by the trend of militarization, but, as Lilienthal’s example indicates, there have always been strong counter-trends against the domination of American society by the military establishment. In 1960, Eisenhower’s memorable farewell speech warned Americans to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”194 The anti-war counter-culture movements of the 1960s-70s demonstrate that many were indeed on “guard.” In the wake of 9/11, efforts in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq are clear indications that a re-militarization is taking place in the U.S. Not only will the counter-currents against this re-militarization continue to take the form of protests on America’s streets, there will also be counter-currents protesting from inside of Washington, by civilians. Another Lilienthal may be hard at work.






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