Power & Market

Smedley Butler Explains the Latest Excuse for American Intervention in Ukraine

Senior Fellow Alex Pollock drew my attention to an important quotation by Smedley Butler: 

1935 speech and later a book by Major General Smedley D. Butler (USMC), includes  “… A racket is best described, I believe, something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small “inside” group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make large fortunes. … If we put them to work making poison gas and more and more fiendish mechanical and explosive instruments of destructions, they will have no time for the constructive job of building a greater prosperity for all peoples. By putting them to this useful job, we can all make more money out of peace than we can out of war – even the munition makers. So … I say, TO HELL WITH WAR.”

It is notable that very little has changed over the past century in terms of how regimes rationalize war. It was during the First World War that the term “merchants of death” first gained widespread use, and it was also during that war that the American regime also spoke often in terms of munitions spending as a benefit of war. It was all part of a war-propaganda machine dreamed up with Woodrow Wilson’s cadre. 

Unfortunately, the propaganda still works with many. It was just two weeks ago, in fact, that the Biden Administration began explicitly trying to sell US military aid to Ukraine as a scheme to “create jobs” in the United States. The administration’s statement on the war spending is virtually identical to something out of a US propaganda mill in 1950 or 1918. We would only need to change a few of the names and places. According to Biden’s handlers

“While this bill dispatches military hardware to Ukraine,” Biden mentioned on Tuesday, “it actually finances manufacturing within the United States in states like Arizona, where Patriot missiles are manufactured; Alabama, the home of Javelin missiles; and also Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Texas, which are hubs for the production of artillery shells.”

There are a multitude of problems with this statement. For one, it completely ignores the moral questions of forcing American taxpayers to pay for Kiev to send more young men into a meat grinder that is part of a conflict it is clear Ukraine will lose. Secondly, these weapons are not accounted for and are not audited. We don’t even know where they really end up. Third, US involvement in the war risks involving the US in an escalating conflict that has absolutely no strategic value for normal Americans. For normal taxpayers, this is all risk and no benefit. Escalation could lead to American deaths while “victory” in Ukraine doesn’t benefit Americans at all since Ukrainian sovereignty has never contributed anything at all to American taxpayers. 

Finally, there is the fact that war spending simply is not “good for the economy.” This is an old well-worn myth, but is based on nothing. Consider the process: war spending (especially spending on weapons) requires taxing productive Americans and then turning their taxpayer money into devices that will be consumed in war. Had the taxpayers been allowed to spend this money, much of that money would have been spent on things like education, capital goods, saving, and investment. Instead, that money is taxed, and then, after the bureaucrats take their cut, it is transformed into artillery shells, etc. that blow up some stuff in Ukraine for no benefit to Americans. To imagine that this is a boon for Americans requires the most out-of-touch beltway type of thinking imaginable. 

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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