Home > National Politics > History in Today’s Politics – The Bonus Army

History in Today’s Politics – The Bonus Army

Kronstadt Poster

WordPress has reported to me a response to one of my earlier blogs, which was about the Bonus Army of 1932, a forerunner of the current Occupy Wall Street movement, and how on this occasion several thousand World War I veterans were dispersed from their tent city in Washington D.C. by orders to the U.S. Army from President Herbert Hoover.

The person who commented, citing this blog, was an Angelita Fisher and she appears to be connected with an Internet operation called INTEL HUB, which is heavy on support for Congressman Ron Paul and dedicated to opposing “globalism,” whatever that means.

The first part of her response, which is actually unconnected to my blog, seemed somewhat mystifying, asking me to “Examine U.S. military policy during the Cold War from 1946-1989” discussing “policy development, military strategy, nuclear weapons and targeting” and a host of other such esoteric subjects. Her final words, though, still unconnected, were more concrete and within my capability to respond. Ms. Fisher stated: “Despite fighting the Korean War to stalemate and suffering defeat in Vietnam, the U.S. emerged victorious in its four decade long conflict with the Soviet Union. Why?”

I’m glad she asked. It has long been an article of faith in American right wing circles that President Reagan forced the USSR to its knees by ramping up our military spending and thus bankrupting the Soviets when they tried to compete.

I beg to differ. And Ms. Fisher’s question allows me to say why I think so, based on three trips I’ve taken to the entity we today call Russia, two of them while it was still the Soviet Union and one soon after it no longer was.

In 1977, during the height of the Brezhnev era and three years before Ronald Reagan was elected, I spent 32 days in the Soviet Union travelling as a tourist with my wife and youngest daughter Danielle, then six years old. It was my wife’s idea to bring Dany along and at first I thought it was a nutty thing to do. However, it really made our trip. Russians love children and they showered our cute little American darling with all kinds of gifts and attention. Also, it may well have lessened their usual paranoia about Americans being spies. The Iron Curtain had opened a crack by then  – at least to the extent that tourists were welcomed, albeit closely watched.

In a sense, though, we were unofficial spies – that is, I was. My goal in going to the Soviet Union then was essentially to see what it was like and especially to see what it was like in the non-Russian areas. I was not working for anyone, only for satisfying my own curiosity. Our itinerary was an extensive one. Within today’s Russia, we were in Moscow and Leningrad [not yet reverted to its old name of St. Petersburg] plus historic places like Novgorod, Vladimir and Suzdal. Other areas we visited, which are now independent nations, were the Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Tadjikistan, Georgia, Armenia and Latvia.

The overall impression in 1977 when the Soviet empire was at its height of power was that the place was a basket case. Nothing worked, because the Communist structure had been built on a false premise. Relying on Karl Marx’s notion that if the workers and peasants seized the means of production (i.e., took it away from the rampant capitalism of the Industrial Revolution), a nirvana on earth could be created. Instead, what happened was that a society was created in the USSR in which bureaucrats, not workers and peasants, totally ran the show. I’ve called it a burocy. An elite of bureaucrats developed that controlled all power and possibility of advancement. Moreover, its economic emphasis was exclusively centered upon production. You were judged by how well you fulfilled arbitrarily set quotas for goods and services. Consumer acceptance was utterly ignored. This worked well in creating military hardware but created a society in which most people felt they had no stake.

If you went to a food store or any retail establishment, the lines were horrific and the merchandise horrendous. You said a prayer if you entered an elevator. More than once, in hotels, we heard people pounding from within against doors that wouldn’t open. Nets hung from buildings to keep roof tiles from falling onto pedestrians below. Quality meant nothing. Quantity was everything.

Outside of geographic Russia, what I had anticipated was evident. The Soviet empire was merely another version of age-old Russian imperialism. The subject people hated their Russian overlords. You could tell even then in 1977 that such a situation couldn’t last much longer.

The party’s propaganda effort telling people how good they had it was relentless, but ultimately completely ineffectual. We westerners, particularly Americans, by our very presence, gave a lie to their false political advertising.

When I returned 12 years later, this time with a People-to-People exchange group of bi-partisan State legislators and officials, the internal changes were palpable. The Soviet powers-that-be had lost their totalitarian control. In Leningrad, I heard one party official sigh and tell us it was a bad time to be a Communist in the Soviet Union. In Uzbekistan, the Uzbeks seemed to have taken over. There were billboards warning that without reform, the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics would fall apart.

A spot-on prediction. The demise of the Soviet Union was brought on by its own inner contradictions, not outside pressure.

Ironically, talking about contradictions, Marx had insisted that Capitalism would succumb because of its inner contradictions. He was wrong – so far, anyway. But the return to the excesses that brought on the Great Depression and now the Great Recession may yet bring a crippling, even fatal, crisis to the system we call Capitalism.

I will have more to say about this phenomenon in future blogs.

My last trip to the land presently called just plain Russia was in 1992, about three years after the Soviet collapse. It was like being in the wild west, everything topsy-turvy amid the turnover of government property and industry to a primitive privatization of tooth and claw Capitalism reminiscent of the Robber Baron days in the U.S. In one case, I myself, was approached in a veterans hospital (I had come with a group looking at medical facilities) by a man who had been the commander of the Soviet paratroopers and who headed their veterans organization. He and his friends were trying to sell the formerly top secret naval base of Kronstadt near St. Petersburg for an industrial park and he wanted me to contact a man in San Francisco who was acting as their agent. [I did phone him when I got home, but he never returned my call]. Such audacious switches of public resources into privileged hands was commonplace at the time.

There is one final point I would make in answering Ms. Angelita Fisher’s query of why did the Soviet Union not last. For me, it is an intangible factor in the impact of the U.S.A. on the hard core Russian imperialism behind the Iron Curtain. This thought was indelibly impressed upon me by Olga, our guide and translator, during my second trip in 1989 with that delegation of State legislators and officials. Despite our political differences – we ranged from extreme left to extreme right and everything in between – we bonded together as Americans so spontaneously do, and our bus rides were often filled with merriment as we joked and sang and carried on. Olga, who was rumored to be a KGB agent, told us in unusual candor at the end of our trip as we bid her good-bye. “You Americans should know that it is not your wealth we envy. It is your ability to laugh.”

Angelita, I strongly believe this unconscious spirit of ours also helped bring down the Evil Empire.    

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Categories: National Politics
  1. February 1, 2012 at 8:50 am

    “… spot-on prediction. The demise of the Soviet Union was brought on by its own inner contradictions, not outside pressure.” Thanks for this blog!

    First, about the original “Occupy”, ie, the 1932 Veterans protest on Washington. My parents recalled this experience to me, reporting from their first person perspective that their eviction was the real reason behind Herbert Hoover’s fall from political power, more so than the political impact of the Great Depression alone. (My parents opinion)

    Secondly, about the demise of the Soviet Union by inner contradictions, I agree – neither Russia nor France needed outside pressure to bring down the reigning establishment.

    For a political observe to believe otherwise is terribly naive and shows poor understanding of political-economic systems. As for Reagan’s “tear down this wall” speech, the horrid separation barrier was already crumbling in place…..

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