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8 Ways America Was Better Off During the Cold War

In many ways the Cold War era in America was a nightmare. In other ways, we're actually worse off now.
 
 
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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 U.S. 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.

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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.”

 
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