When I was growing up in Wisconsin, the school history texts told us that the most prominent politician to come out of the state was Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, and for good reason. As governor and U.S. senator, he was the leader of the progressive party that was Republican in name only. For La Follette, the world was a battle between “the people” and the “selfish interests,” or laborers and farmers against corporations and their millionaire stooges in Congress. He pushed for tax reform, business and finance regulation, labor rights and the curbing of the “rights” of the powerful to influence elections and the legislative agenda long before the Great Depression made the need for it “popular.”
But La Follette ran afoul of popular sentiment in regard to the U.S.’ entry into World War I. Not that his reasoning for doing so had no basis in fact. The U.S. did frequently intervene in foreign countries solely for the purpose of protecting the interests of American businesses. For those who doubt this, I have already quoted Gen. Smedley Butler—as self-described “muscle man” for corporate interests—from his pamphlet War is a Racket:
I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents."
La Follette believed that corporations and business interests were pushing the U.S. to war in the hope of profiting by it (the U.S. certainly had no direct “interest” in involving itself in what was essentially the usual European struggle to maintain “equilibrium” between the leading states). Once war against Germany was declared, partly in response to the sinking of the Lusitania, a British passenger liner out of New York that was also carrying nearly 200 tons of war munitions (technically violating the U.S. claim of “neutrality” up to that point), which likely caused the massive explosion and led to the loss of life of over 1,000 people. La Follette—besides opposing the draft, attempted and failed to convince Congress to force corporations to pay for U.S. war efforts, since they were the ones profiting by it.
But pro-war advocates labeled La Follette a “traitor” and pushed for his expulsion from the U.S. Senate. The effort failed, but he was essentially a public pariah for several years after the “successful” conclusion of the World War I. But public opinion would change when people realized that he was correct in claiming that the unjust “settlement” of the “war to end all wars” would only lead to another—and probably even worse—war. The victorious allies imposed an impossible burden on Germany alone to pay war reparations in the hopes of destroying forever its military capacity; instead of doing that, the West only made conditions impossible for Germans to accept “democracy” and give credibility to avowed democrats, who were viewed a stooges and traitors in allowing the country’s foreign—and Jewish—“enemies” to drive Germany into the ground. It might have been different if economic conditions had improved with that of the rest of the world in the 1920s and allowed Germans to believe in democracy as a viable form of government, but Britain and France insisted on forcing Germany to pay $33 billion in war damages—obviously a staggering sum in 1919—and there was no hope for recovery.
Thus when the Great Depression hit, it was especially crushing on Germany, and thus the rise of the Nazis and the search for external and internal scapegoats was not unexpected. And of course for a people that believed itself unjustly punished by the Western powers, revenge was never far from the national mindset. War was still not necessarily inevitably, but after foolishly trying to “crush” Germany into a militarily weak state, the allies themselves became weak in enforcing the terms of the Versailles Treaty, apparently in the belief that treating Hitler with kid gloves would “soften” him and sate his expansionist tendencies. It did not. Moral questions aside, think about this: No outrageous imposition of reparations that stunted economic recovery, no Nazis or Hitler, no war, no Holocaust, very likely no founding of the state of Israel, no Islamic jihadist reaction to the West’s support of it.
And American corporations rejoiced at the entry of the U.S. into the World War II. The fact was that the U.S. was still far from completely recovered from the Depression in 1941, and the “recovery” of the economy that would soon occur did so on the back of massive government spending on military-affiliated activities. After the war, the economy went into a downspin following diminished military expenditures, but recovered somewhat with the beginning of the so-called “Cold War.” In Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s final address before leaving office, this former general warned of the power of “military-industrial complex,” which he felt would undermine American democracy and promote activities not in the country’s best interest—like the Vietnam War.
Things have not changed since then. The alleged economic “recovery” under Reagan was built on the back of massive government military spending, failing to support domestic consumer manufacturing that was disappearing in the face of foreign competition. Today, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld claims that he never believed that “democracy” would take in Iraq, but that didn’t stop the U.S. for engaging in what now can be seen as a foolish endeavor that needlessly cost many thousands of American lives. And who was among those who profited most from the Iraq War? Halliburton, an oil and gas company which “expanded” into military-related endeavors under the Bush administration—and its technically on leave CEO, Vice President Dick Cheney, didn’t have anything to do with it. Oh sure. Cheney was perfectly content to wait for his “deferred” millions in compensation for directing military and oil contracts to his “former” company.
Of course, war profiteering and actually “winning” a war are two entirely different things. The former only needs an ongoing war (such as a decade in Iraq and trillions in “off-the-books” spending); the latter requires a cost in blood, which corporate fat cats and rocking chair “warriors” regard as an “unfortunate” but “unavoidable” outlay. With ISIS on the loose, it is clear that—as Eisenhower stated—the interests of corporations and their political stooges are as often as not in direct conflict with that of the national and public interest. But Gen. Butler would hardly be surprised.