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Eight Things I Miss About the Cold War

Fifty years ago, college was cheap, unions were strong, and there was no terrorism-industrial complex.

| Tue Jan. 15, 2013 6:22 PM EST

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

At a book festival in Los Angeles recently, some writers (myself included) were making the usual arguments about the problems with American politics in the 1950s—until one panelist shocked the audience by declaring, "God, I miss the Cold War."  His grandmother, he said, had come to California from Oklahoma with a grade-school education, but found a job in an aerospace factory in L.A. during World War II, joined the union, got healthcare and retirement benefits, and prospered in the Cold War years.  She ended up owning a house in the suburbs and sending her kids to UCLA.

Several older people in the audience leaped to their feet shouting, "What about McCarthyism?"  "The bomb?"  "Vietnam?"  "Nixon?"

All good points, of course.  After all, during the Cold War the US did threaten to destroy the world with nuclear weapons, supported brutal dictators globally because they were anti-communist, and was responsible for the deaths of several million people in Korea and Vietnam, all in the name of defending freedom. And yet it's not hard to join that writer in feeling a certain nostalgia for the Cold War era.  It couldn't be a sadder thing to admit, given what happened in those years, but—given what's happened in these years—who can doubt that the America of the 1950s and 1960s was, in some ways, simply a better place than the one we live in now? Here are eight things (from a prospectively longer list) we had then and don't have now.

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1. The president didn't claim the right to kill American citizens without "the due process of law."

Last year we learned that President Obama personally approved the killing-by-drone of an American citizen living abroad without any prior judicial proceedings. That was in Yemen, but as Amy Davidson wrote at the New Yorker website, "Why couldn't it have been in Paris?"  Obama assures us that the people he orders assassinated are "terrorists."  It would, however, be more accurate to call them "alleged terrorists," or "alleged terrorist associates," or "people said by some other government to be terrorists, or at least terroristic."

Obama's target in Yemen was Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who was said to be a senior figure in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.  According to the book Kill or Capture by Daniel Klaidman, the president told his advisors, "I want Awlaki. Don't let up on him."  Steve Coll of the New Yorker commented that this appears to be "the first instance in American history of a sitting president speaking of his intent to kill a particular US citizen without that citizen having been charged formally with a crime or convicted at trial."  (Awlaki's 16-year-old son, whom no one claims was connected to terrorist activities or terror plots, was also killed in a separate drone attack.)

The problem, of course, is the due-process clause of the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits "any person" from being deprived of "life, liberty, or property without due process of law."   It doesn't say: "any person except for those the president believes to be terrorists."

It gets worse: the Justice Department can keep secret a memorandum providing the supposed "legal" justification for the targeted killing of a US citizen, according to a January 2013 decision by a federal judge.  Ruling on a Freedom of Information lawsuit brought by the ACLU and the New York Times, Judge Colleen McMahon, wrote in her decision, "I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret."

It's true that the CIA has admitted it had an assassination program during the Cold War—described in the so-called "family jewels" or "horrors book," compiled in 1973 under CIA Director James Schlesinger in response to Watergate-era inquiries and declassified in 2007.  But the targets were foreign leaders, especially Fidel Castro as well as the Congo's Patrice Lumumba and the Dominican Republic's Rafael Trujillo.  Still, presidents preferred "plausible deniability" in such situations, and certainly no president before Obama publicly claimed the legal right to order the killing of American citizens.  Indeed, before Sept. 11, 2001, the US regularly condemned "targeted killings" of suspected terrorists by Israel that were quite similar to those the president is now regularly ordering in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, Yemen, and possibly elsewhere.

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.

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

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