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"Prompt Global Strike" Has Deep Roots in American History

News Abroad




Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Apocalypse Management: Eisenhower and the Discourse of National Insecurity (Stanford, 2008).

Prompt Global Strike (PGS) is the latest innovation (or is it fantasy?) in U.S. military technology—“a new class of weapons,” the New York Timesexplains, armed with conventional explosives and “capable of reaching any corner of the earth from the United States in under an hour. … designed to carry out tasks like picking off Osama bin Laden in a cave, if the right one could be found; taking out a North Korean missile while it is being rolled to the launch pad; or destroying an Iranian nuclear site—all without crossing the nuclear threshold.”

President Obama told the Times that he is supporting PGS research (to the tune of a quarter-billion dollars, next year alone) so that “our conventional weapons capability is an effective deterrent in all but the most extreme circumstances.”

When I read these words, I immediately thought of some other words, spoken by Secretary of State Cordell Hull in 1937: "There can be no serious hostilities anywhere in the world which will not one way or another affect interests or rights or obligations of this country." Hull later wrote that this became his leading theme "for years to come."

There’s no evidence that Hull ever thought of something like PGS. But the logical connection is inescapable: If our interests can be affected by any serious hostilities anywhere—hostilities that can erupt suddenly, at any time—then naturally we would want to be able to defend our interests by intervening anywhere at any time, as suddenly as possible, to stop the threat before it really has a chance to start.

It’s easy to imagine (if you believe in such things) Cordell Hull looking down from heaven and smiling in satisfaction at a dream come true. Even for non-believers, it’s easy to see that the road leading to PGS was already being paved by the secretary of state as early as 1937, when the vast majority of Americans still assumed that their country had no business intervening in conflicts among foreigners.

The articles I’ve read on PGS don’t put it in this historical perspective. Even if they did, I doubt they would cast the net of their perspective wide enough. To do that, they’d have to ask why in 1937, for the first time, a secretary of state publicly declared hostilities anywhere a potential threat to the United States.

The answer lay in the link between the globalization of U.S. interests and the globalization of trade. Just a few months before he uttered the words quoted above, Hull also said: "There is no more dangerous cause of war than economic distress, and no more potent factor in creating such distress than stagnation and paralysis in the field of international commerce."

These were not merely propagandistic words meant to intimidate the rising powers, Germany and Japan. Three years earlier, in 1934—well before either nation began building great empires by force—Hull was already linking non-discriminatory trade to the deterrence of military threat: “Fierce and unregulated struggles among nations for trade produce both economic and political disturbances. They are almost certain precursors of war.” In that same year, Hull’s State Department declared that the administration's goal was nothing less than the "economic rehabilitation of the world," to be achieved through expanded international trade and "a regime of equality of treatment in international commercial relations."

Hull held his principle of a peace through an open global economy with religious fervor, as he acknowledged in his memoirs: “These doctrines were as vital in international relations as the Ten Commandments in personal relations. … If the world followed them, the world could live at peace forever. If the world ignored them, war would be eternal.” Again the argument, though it remained implicit, was clear enough: Eternal peace was at hand—if the U.S. was able and willing to respond effectively to hostilities anywhere and everywhere and thus maintain a free and open flow of world trade.

To what extent did Hull’s boss, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, agree with his secretary of state’s logic? That will probably always remain an open question. With typical ambiguity, FDR told Hull in 1934: "In pure theory you and I think alike. But every once in a while we have to modify a principle to meet a hard and disagreeable fact."

By 1940, though, Roosevelt was using language strikingly similar to Hull’s. “Open[ing] up the trade channels of the world … [is] an indispensable part of the foundation of any stable and enduring peace,” he told Congress, urging renewal of the Reciprocal Trade Agreements. “We are building a total defense on land, on sea, and in the air,” he told an audience later that year, “sufficient to repel total attack from any part of the world.”

By that time, Roosevelt could point to specific nations threatening both the U.S. and the free flow of trade. Indeed, he crafted such language specifically to wage political battle against the millions who were trying to stop U.S. intervention in the European and Pacific conflicts. Once FDR won that battle, the ideas he espoused became fundamental principles of U.S. foreign policy. So they could and would be applied to new enemies—first the communist bloc and then, after the Cold War ended, a series of other nations and groups deemed threats to national security.

Now, though, we have come full circle. As in the mid-1930s, U.S. leaders are warning that we must be prepared to fight anywhere, against enemies whose names and places we may not know and cannot predict, because our interests are everywhere, anywhere, who-knows-where. The only difference is that today’s leaders see a real possibility of PGS weapons, which will give them the kind of control Hull and Roosevelt could only have dreamt of—the control that the Pentagon has long called “Full Spectrum Dominance,” now to be exercised virtually instantly.

As in the mid-1930s, U.S. leaders are espousing doctrines of so-called “free trade” without linking those doctrines directly to their plans for PGS. Yet historians who follow in the footsteps of William Appleman Williams might want to recall the words he quoted from Hull’s assistant secretary of state, Francis Sayre, who described the emerging American foreign policy of the late ‘30s as “an instrumentality for throwing the weight of American power and influence against the current disastrous movement toward economic nationalism.”

Whether movements toward economic nationalism are disastrous for the nations embarking on them is an open question. But it has been a rather unquestioned dogma in the White House and the State Department since the days of FDR and Hull that such movements are disastrous for American interests. And it seems unquestionable that the PGS system is “an instrumentality for throwing the weight of American power,” faster and more freely than ever before, to every corner of the globe. Seen in the context of three-quarters of a century of history, that system takes on a more complex, though as yet far from fully understood, significance.


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Cherie Peden - 5/27/2010

So the economic crisis will be used as just another excuse for American adventurism abroad. The Iranians will be labelled the enemy and will be the American war machine's next victim. Why is it that people never learn from their history teachers?


Arnold Shcherban - 5/25/2010

Peter, for wishing me a long life and for erasing my ignorance on marijuana use.
It's a pity you and others of your creed cannot be as humane and useful in anything else.


Peter Kovachev - 5/25/2010

Of course, Arnie, good old Karl foresaw everything, although he forgot to do up the schedule on a spreadheet. Good times are but a heart-beat away, if we could only educate our talk-radio sullied minds and purify our greedy, Big Mac-weakened hearts. Continue to hold your breath (or toke) for at least another century, Arnie, for any day now, the enraged proletariat will rise to cast off its chains of servitude (pvc-coated chains available for a limited time only for $1.99/metre at Wal-Mart).


Arnold Shcherban - 5/24/2010

Hasn't the political and military strategy described by the author been foreseen long ago as the natural and prime consequence of the export of capital and called "imperialism"?