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  • Alex Horn

The United States as "the Great Arsenal of Democracy"?

I recently saw an analysis piece from the Washington Post entitled “Ukraine War Is Depleting America’s Arsenal of Democracy”, and I was taken aback. Given the ongoing, unjustified Russian invasion of Ukraine, an article like this isn’t very notable. The article was written by Hal Brands, a hawkish conservative political commentator, and so I wasn’t surprised when he argued for an even higher military budget to support increased weaponry manufacturing; but it was the phrase “arsenal of democracy” that took me by surprise. Upon further research, I found that this phrase came from World War II, specifically from a fireside chat by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in December 1940. At this point, France had already surrendered to Nazi Germany, but the United States was still a year out from joining the war. We were, however, supplying the British immensely with weaponry, and this would greatly increase a few months later with the Lend-Lease Act. In justifying the United States’ armament of the British, Roosevelt said that the U.S. “must be the great arsenal of democracy”. Ever since this point, American foreign policy has relied on the United States’ vast material resources for military—after all, we’ve spent over $1 trillion annually on war over the last 20 years—so we definitely have an arsenal of something. But what is this vast arsenal really for? It's certainly not for democracy—in recent history the U.S. military has not been a force of democracy, but a force of corporate imperialism and neocolonialism.


By the 1950s, the U.S. was already proving itself to be the arsenal of imperialism. At this time, the British had already controlled Iran’s oil production for decades through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). However, in 1951, Mohammad Mosaddegh was democratically elected as Prime Minister, and two days afterwards he nationalized AIOC, arguing “With the oil revenues, we could meet our entire budget and combat poverty, disease.” The British were enraged, and so they came to the U.S. for help. The C.I.A.—in collaboration with the British—overthrew the democratically-elected government, restoring the absolute monarchy under Mohammad Reza—a fact that the C.I.A. admitted to 60 years later. Mohammad Reza’s reign, lasting for over 25 years, was brutal and totalitarian—but he allowed the west to continue their oil production in Iran, so the U.S. kept a close alliance with him.


Just a year after the C.I.A. couped the democratically-elected government in Iran in favor of a brutalist, absolute monarchy, they were at it again in Guatemala. In 1950 the Guatemalan people popularly elected Jacobo Árbenz, just the second free Guatemalan election since the late 1800s. Guatemala had only been a democracy since 1944, when the people rose up against a decades-long U.S.-supported dictatorship. However, when Árbenz instituted land reform policies to take back land from foreign corporations and give it to the people, the American government called him a communist; and when Árbenz threatened nationalize the plantations of the American-based United Fruit Company, the U.S. decided that Guatemala’s experiment with democracy had gone on long enough. In 1954, the C.I.A.—unsurprisingly—staged a coup d'état to replace Árbenz with a military junta that would last for the next 40 years. These dictatorships were marked by the deaths and disappearances of over 200,000 people—and the genocide of the indigenous Mayan people—but the U.S. government maintained support of the dictatorships due to their “anti-communist” stance.


Six years later in 1960, Congo-Léopoldville (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) gained independence from Belgian colonizers, and democratically elected Patrice Lumumba as the Prime Minister. Like Mosaddegh and Árbenz before him, Lumumba had the radical idea that the people of his country should be able to benefit from their wealth of natural resources, instead of imperialist corporations. The Congo had vast mineral wealth—especially uranium—and in their independence agreement, Belgium retained the rights to these mines and much of the surrounding land. Having just gone from being under de jure colonial rule to de facto, the Congolese military rebelled against Belgium demanding better pay and to be free of colonialism. Lumumba was dismissed by the Congolese President, and then assassinated in 1961 at the express orders of U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower. After five years of Civil War from the sudden power vacuum, Mobutu Sese Seko came to power with the support of the U.S. and was praised by the U.S. as an anti-communist. Mobutu was a brutal, authoritarian dictator for more than 30 years. His people suffered while he gained a net worth of $5 billion from Congo’s mineral wealth. Throughout his reign, he had the consistent endorsement of the U.S.


Described here are just a few examples, but there are at least 30 instances between 1945 and 2000 when the United States intervened in the affairs of another country not for the purpose of exporting democracy, but on behalf of the interests of its own corporations. This is not an issue of the past, either. Of the $21 trillion the U.S. spent on militarism since 2001, $7.2 trillion went to for-profit, private contractors. These companies’ profit margins rely on the proliferation of war. In fact, in the week after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, military contractors’ stock skyrocketed, with Raytheon’s stock increasing by 11%, Lockheed Martin’s by 18%, and BAE Systems’ by 26%; while at the same time, the Dow Jones Industrial Average increased by less than 0.5%. The United States may be an arsenal for democracy, but only when that democracy is in line with our own monetary gain.


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