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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

peace dividend

(1990’s | militarese, bureaucratese | “post-war boom”)

I was surprised to learn that “peace dividend” began to crop up as we were ending the Vietnam War by expanding it into the rest of southeast Asia. According to the Congressional Quarterly, the phrase was born in 1968, as pressure mounted to end the war, and Nixon won the election partly on the strength of a promise to do so — neither the first nor the last of his brazen lies. It occurred to a number of people that we would save a lot of money if we weren’t garrisoning a huge army and manufacturing and destroying vast arsenals of weapons. If we were to spend that money, or part of it, on education, infrastructure, clean air and water, or other components of the much-maligned general welfare, it would be analogous to dividends from stocks and bonds (in fact, the analogy is very weak, but there’s no rule that says new expressions have to be plausible). It’s worth noting that the phrase does not refer to more general benefits conferred by the cessation of conflict; it nearly always has a purely economic cast. It didn’t really get popular until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989; for five or ten years after that, we heard a lot about the peace dividend that would arise from the end of the Cold War. Anybody seen it?

The phrase rarely takes metaphorical uses, although soon-to-be former New York City Police commissioner Bill Bratton has used it to talk about improved community relations following a drop in stop-and-frisks and other small-time arrests. Another meaning did emerge briefly, though it never gained much traction, after the Camp David accords of 1978 between Israel and Egypt. One of the means we used to get the parties to agree was to promise lots of military aid to both sides, which inspired some commentators to talk of a “peace dividend” to Israel and Egypt. A kind of bribe, in other words, to give both sides incentive to agree to a rather unpalatable set of conditions. (Arms manufacturers and their shareholders received quite literal dividends as well, but that was not pointed out in the mainstream press.) One can find examples from the late seventies and the early eighties, but that sense of the phrase was never more than a distant runner-up.

The end of the Cold War marked the last time the peace dividend played a significant part in U.S. politics. Maybe that’s just because the various wars and police actions* we’ve undertaken were either on a very small scale (former Yugoslavia) or are still more or less in progress (Iraq, Afghanistan, terrorism). But the fact is our officials have abandoned alternatives to the national security state. No one considers, much less proposes, eliminating policies that seek to impose our will on the rest of the world whether they like it or not. Concomitantly, evidence that our efforts to do so rarely succeed and often backfire are blotted out of public discourse. There is no alternative to meddling and warfare. And there may be no discussion of the fact that there is no alternative. Naked emperors are as embarrassing as ever.

The problem with the peace dividend is that it is more a fiction of accounting than anything else. It makes sense in theory, but economists are always quick to point out that it won’t amount to much in practice. True, the army never gets much smaller and the pace of armament production never slows for long. But even if they did, government budgeting bears so little relation to personal or family budgeting — where reducing spending in one department might well lead directly to increased spending in another — that savings disappear without a trace into a complex web of interests and bureaucracies. The only way to change that would be to reduce the size of the federal government to something closer to what it was in the early days of the republic, when the population was much, much smaller. Despite a lot of big talk, neither the right nor the left wing has any interest in doing so, or any idea of how to go about it.

* Remember that phrase? It goes back to to the Korean War, when it still made some tradition-minded Constitutional scholars squeamish to refer to a “war” that Congress had not declared.

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