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Eight Things I Miss About the Cold War

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2. We didn't have a secret "terrorism-industrial complex."

That's the term coined by Dana Priest and William Arkin in their book Top Secret America to describe the ever-growing post-9/11 world of government agencies linked to private contractors charged with fighting terrorism.  During the Cold War, we had a handful of government agencies doing "top secret" work; today, they found, we have more than 1,200.

For example, Priest and Arkin found 51 federal organizations and military commands that attempt to track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.  And don't forget the nearly 2,000 for-profit corporate contractors that engage in top-secret work, supposedly hunting terrorists.  The official budget for "intelligence" has increased from around $27 billion in the last years of the Cold War to $75 billion in 2012. Along with this massive expansion of government and private security activities has come a similarly humongous expansion of official secrecy: the number of classified documents has increased from perhaps 5 million a year before 1980 to 92 million in 2011, while Obama administration prosecutions of government whistleblowers have soared.

It's true that the CIA and the FBI engaged in significant secret and illegal surveillance that included American citizens during the Cold War, but the scale was small compared to the post-9/11 world.

3. Organized labor was accepted as part of the social landscape. 

"Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of their right to join the union of their choice." That's what President Dwight D. Eisenhower said in 1952.  "Workers," he added, "have a right to organize into unions and to bargain collectively with their employers," and he affirmed that "a strong, free labor movement is an invigorating and necessary part of our industrial society."  He caught the mood of the moment this way: "Should any political party attempt to" eliminate labor laws, you would not hear of that party again in our political history."  "There is," he acknowledged, "a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things, but their number is negligible... And they are stupid." 

You certainly wouldn't catch Barack Obama saying anything like that today.  

Back then, American unions were, in part, defended even by Republicans because they were considered a crucial aspect of the struggle against Communism.  Unlike Soviet workers, American ones, so the argument went, were free to join independent unions.  And amid a wave of productive wealth, union membership in Eisenhower's America reached an all-time high: 34% of wage and salary workers in 1955.  In 2011, union membership in the private sector had fallen under 7%, a level not seen since 1932.

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Of course, back in the Cold War era the government required unions to kick communists out of any leadership positions they held and unions that refused were driven out of existence.  Unions also repressed wildcat strikes and enforced labor peace in exchange for multi-year contracts with wage and benefit increases. But as we've learned in the last decades, if you're a wageworker, almost any union is better than no union at all.

4. The government had to get a warrant before it could tap your phone. 

Today, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments Act (yes, that repetitive tongue twister is its real name) gives the government vast powers to spy on American citizens -- and it's just been extended to 2017 in a bill that Obama enthusiastically signed on December 29th.  The current law allows the monitoring of electronic communications without an individualized court order, as long as the government claims its intent is to gather "foreign intelligence."  In recent years, much that was once illegal has been made the law of the land.  Vast quantities of the emails and phone calls of Americans are being "data-mined."  Amendments approved by Congress in 2008, for instance, provided "retroactive immunity to the telecom companies that assisted the Bush administration in its warrantless wiretapping program," which was then (or should have been) illegal, as the website Open Congress notes

There were several modest congressional attempts to amend the 2012 FISA extension act, including one that would have required the director of national intelligence to reveal how many Americans are being secretly monitored.  That amendment would in no way have limited the government's actual spying program.  The Senate nevertheless rejected it, 52-43, in a nation that has locked itself down in a way that would have been inconceivable in the Cold War years.

It's true that in the 1950s and 1960s judges typically gave the police and FBI the wiretap warrants they sought.  But it's probably also true that having to submit requests to judges had a chilling effect on the urge of government authorities to engage in unlimited wiretapping.

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5. The infrastructure was being expanded and strengthened.

Today, our infrastructure is crumbling: bridges are collapsing, sewer systems are falling apart, power grids are failing.  Many of those systems date from the immediate post-World War II years.  And the supposedly titanic struggle against communism at home and abroad helped build them.  The best-known example of those Cold War infrastructure construction programs was the congressionally mandated National Defense Highways Act of 1956, which led to the construction of 41,000 miles of the Interstate Highway System. It was the largest public works project in American history and it was necessary, according to the legislation, to "meet the requirements of the national defense in time of war."  People called the new highways "freeways" or "interstates," but the official name was "the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways."

Along with the construction of roads and bridges came a similar commitment to expanding water delivery systems and the electrical and telephone grids.  Spending on infrastructure as a share of gross domestic product peaked in the 1960s at 3.1%.  In 2007, it was down to 2.4% and is assumedly still falling.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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