In the novel 1984 by George Orwell, the way a seemingly democratic president kept his nation in a continual state of repression was by keeping the nation in a constant state of war. Cynics suggest the lesson wasn't lost on Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon, who both, they say, extended the Vietnam war so it coincidentally ran over election cycles, knowing that a wartime President's party is more likely to be reelected and has more power than a President in peacetime.
This wasn't a new lesson, however, and Orwell was not the first to note that a democracy at war was weakened and at risk.
On April 20, 1795, James Madison, who had just helped shepherd through the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and would become President of the United States in the following decade, wrote, "Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other."
Reflecting on war's impact on the Executive Branch of government Madison continued his letter about the dangerous and intoxicating power of war for a president.
"In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive [President] is extended," he wrote. "Its [his] influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war...and in the degeneracy of manners and morals, engendered by both.
"No nation," he concluded, "could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."
But it's not just Madison who warned us. More recent presidents have also noted the danger of a craven political usurpation of democracy, particularly when fed by the bloody meat of war.
As he was leaving office, the old warrior President Dwight D. Eisenhower had looked back over his years as President and as a General and Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, and noted exactly what Madison had warned against.
"Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea," Eisenhower said in sobering tones in a nationally televised speech. "Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations."
Nonetheless, Eisenhower added, "This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence, economic, political, even spiritual, is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."
He concluded with a very specific warning to us, the generation that would follow. "We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes," he said. "We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."
But Americans have been terrified by the prospect of terrorism, endlessly hyped by the Republican majority, and the warnings of Madison and Eisenhower are forgotten by many - and unknown to most of the current generation that now studies "to the test" instead of delving into the deeper lines of American history.
Citizens of other nations, however, immediately recognize what the Republicans are up to.
In October of 2002 - nearly four years ago - I wrote on these pages the following summary of a trip I'd just taken to Buenos Aires:
I just returned from Argentina. People there understand Machiavelli, I discovered; when he wrote his instructions to The Prince, that, "Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose"" it would make perfect sense to anybody who'd lived through Argentina's past half-century.
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