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Sanders’ Past Isn’t All Radical

By Taylor Marvin

Bernie Sanders, 2015. Photo by Michael Vadon, via Wikimedia.

Bernie Sanders, 2015. Photo by Michael Vadon, via Wikimedia.

Earlier this week Michael Crowley reported in Politico that Bernie Sanders, in his days as a younger left-wing activist, urged that the CIA should be abolished. In 1974 Sanders, who as Crowley notes has often denounced the CIA-backed 1953 coup that restored the Iranian shah’s authority, deemed it “a dangerous institution that has got to go.”

Sanders’ past stance briefly became the controversy of the day. Crowley quotes Clinton campaign advisor and former chief of staff to CIA director Leon Panetta Jeremy Bash, who views Sanders’ views as naive and argues “abolishing the CIA in the 1970s would have unilaterally disarmed America during the height of the Cold War and at a time when terrorist networks across the Middle East were gaining strength.” At Slate Michelle Goldberg admits that Sanders’ opposition to covert action overreach was justified but sees his past radicalism as a liability in the general election, and the Intercept’s Jon Schwarz views the Politico story as simply Clinton campaign opposition research published as journalism.

On Twitter Jeet Heer – who later wrote a brief piece at the New Republic – and Robert Farley pushed back against accusations of Sanders’ naivety with an insightful series of points. (Unfortunately Farley’s tweets are not nestled, but are numbered: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11.) Farley, who has written a book whose title calls for abolishing the US Air Force and transferring USAF aircraft to the Army and Navy, argues that Sanders’ word choice obscures a more nuanced position.

As Farley and others note, from today’s perspective it is easy to paint the young Sanders as a wild-eyed idealist unaware of the cold realities of Cold War geopolitics. But by the 1970s it was widely acknowledged that CIA covert action had become at least counterproductive, if not outright immoral. Today few Americans defend the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the 1953 coup against Iran’s Mossadeq, CIA orchestration of the 1954 coup against democratically-elected Guatemalan president Jacobo Árbenz, or the United States’ role in the 1973 coup that overthrew Chilean president Salvador Allende. As Jason Catlin ‏replied this somewhat confuses the CIA itself with national policy – the US campaign against Salvador Allende was directed from the Oval Office – but staking out a left flank, in my words, in the debate over the CIA’s role in covert action was not unreasonable at the time. In fact, leaving the ‘abolishing’ word choice aside Washington came around to Sanders’ views, as Crowley himself admits. While the opacity of the Obama administration’s drone campaign remains controversial (via Danny Hirschel-Burns) today there is a broad consensus that overthrowing democratic if ideologically unpalatable governments is wrong, and that covert action during the Cold War was counterproductive and shameful.

As I wrote on Twitter, another aspect of Sanders’ youthful defense policy activism has become, in a way, the conventional wisdom. As Crowley writes about Sanders’ 1974 statements:

At the time, the 33-year-old socialist was running for U.S. Senate on the ticket of the Liberty Union Party, an anti-war group that likened the draft to “a modern form of slavery” and called for reducing the U.S. military in favor of local militias and the Coast Guard.

Conscription is not chattel slavery, and this terminology is offensive – though conservative economist Milton Friedman once called the draft “inconsistent with a free society,” language not entirely removed from the Liberty Union’s words. (Crowley leaves it unclear if Sanders personally shared this view, though it seems likely.) When discussion Sanders’ radicalism, however, it is worth remembering that American society has largely come around to this view. Sanders represented the Liberty Union Party in 1974, after the 1969 Gates Commission recommendation that the US establish a volunteer military and the end of the draft in January 1973. At the time returning to the draft was not unthinkable. Today it almost certainly is.

While the Selective Service maintains the infrastructure to quickly draft large numbers of American young men renewed conscription is vanishingly unlikely. Despite the recent furor over the prospect of requiring women to register with the Selective Service reinstating the draft is unthinkable for anything short of a major war. Indeed, this prospect is made even less likely by the not unreasonable chance that a war serious enough to justified renewed conscription would also be serious enough to quickly go nuclear, perhaps negating the question all together.

To be sure, the rhetoric and philosophical justification for modern opposition to the draft differs from the Liberty Union Party’s radicalism – and especially its “cannon fodder” for US imperialism line. An all volunteer military, many argue, is more skilled and motivated than a conscripted force. However, despite these arguments returning to conscription would be fraught in and of itself. The Vietnam War was a larger commitment than any war the US has fought in the All-Volunteer Force era. But most Americans today would see renewed conscription for any war short of a full-blown national emergency – that is, a war much more pressing than Vietnam – as unjust.

As Michelle Goldberg notes, the Liberty Union Party’s call to abolish the standing US military in favor of “a return to the system of local citizen militias and Coast Guard” is radical, and is certainly not a mainstream position today. But like Farley remarks, it’s important to not let extreme rhetoric obscure how American society has changed in the last four decades. While today few would use the same words the Liberty Union Party’s stance has become, broadly speaking, mainstream.

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