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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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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.

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.

Today the U.S. has  dropped far behind potential global rivals in infrastructure development.  An official panel of 80 experts noted that China is spending $1 trillion on high-speed rail, highways, and other infrastructure over the next five years.  The U.S., according to the report, needs to invest $2 trillion simply to rebuild the roads, bridges, water lines, sewage systems, and dams constructed 40 to 50 years ago, systems that are now reaching the end of their planned life cycles.  But federal spending cuts mean that the burden of infrastructure repair and replacement will fall on state and local governments, whose resources, as everyone knows, are completely inadequate for the task.

Of course, it’s true that the freeways built in the 1950s made the automobile the essential form of transportation in America and led to the withering away of public mass transit, and that the environment suffered as a result.  Still, today’s collapsing bridges and sewers dramatize the loss of any serious national commitment to the public good.

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