09 November 2008

Aerojet Revisited: Thoughts for Veterans' Day

A few weeks ago, I received a comment from a visitor to the Chronicle who, among other things, said this: I was also unsettled to learn of the Aerojet facility and just how close developers are willing to build even after all the lessons learned from the Love Canal incident. I was searching for pictures of Carbon Canyon Park, and the picture you took of the hazardous waste warning sign was strange enough to entice me to visit your blog.

This statement really brings up something that is essential to the dialog about development issues in southern California and, specifically, Carbon Canyon. That is, the health and safety issues of contaminated land as so-called "virgin" land is lost to development. The reclaiming of dairy lands, polluted with decades of cattle carcasses and droppings, as well as pesticides and other chemicals. The reuse of old oil fields in which substantial amounts of "lost" crude oil has seeped into the soil (and, in many cases, watertables). Old landfill sites are also being "adapted" into residential and commercial projects, as well as parks, and there are, obviously, all kinds of material in those areas. We can't (although we so often do) forget the Prop 65 and federal Superfund cleanup areas, in which industrial solvents, chemicals, and other toxic materials abound, and which are so prevalent and rampant that, looked at in isolation the spread of the damage seems relatively contained, but when overlayed onto a grid, shows that there is virtually no area in the metropolitan Los Angeles region that isn't part of one or the other. It is concerning when you think about it, which is why, I suppose, very few people do (or want to.

There is another dimension, as well, which is as relevant today as ever: when Aerojet was developed at the eastern end of Soquel Canyon at the height of Cold War hysteria in the early 1950s, the location was deemed sufficiently remote enough from suburban development. Moreover, the mindset was that, whatever the consequences of having spent rocket fuel, explosives, and other toxic and dangerous material on the site would be more than compensated for by the effect of building more nuclear and chemical weapons than the Soviets as part of a national containment defense strategy. The fact that we had thousands and thousands of missiles and nuclear and atomic bombs, on each side, far more than would be needed to essentially destroy the world, seemed less important than the race to build more itself and demonstrate America (and democracy's) inherent superiority over that of the Soviets (and communism/socialism). Not only was this an expressed strategy of national and patriotic necessity, it also was the obsessive, driving force of an immense and profitable industry.

When you think (again, if you choose) of just how close the insanity led us to with the Cuban missile crisis of the summer of 1962, when we were perched and tottering on the brink of nuclear war with the Soviets, it goes to show how reason and restraint can be so easily sacrificed to fear and paranoia. That era makes the "fear mongering" of the current period seem, in many ways, tame by comparison. The fact that it took the preeminent World War II hero, who also served as the two-term president who oversaw most of this period, to finally take a hard, long look at what had transpired as he was leaving his office, is telling.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, should search out President Dwight D. Eisenhower's final speech in office from 17 June 1961 on YouTube for audio and video and many other places for text and take in the words that still ring as true and important 47 years later as they did then. It isn't just Eisenhower's famed coining of the term "military-industrial complex" that stands out. It is his direct, well-phrased, and nuanced language and the concern that rises out of it, even as he presented his speech in a calm, reasoned manner. In a way, it is sad that we have not seen anything like it before or since from a President. Just as remarkably, here was a man who attained the highest office of our military establishment, as well as the political, and who led an immense force against the Axis powers in World War II warning of the grave implications of the "new" defense industry. It is important that he noted that there was no standing defense industry until the Cold War era--if armaments and materiel were needed, the industries were rushed into creation and then dismantled.

Since 1946, however, we have had an ongoing and powerful military-industrial complex, the very existence of which requires that we use the massive amounts of its products, whether the cause is required for national defense or not. Since then, we have fought major wars in Korea, Vietnam, and twice in the Middle East and been involved in countless smaller battles and wars throughout the world. We have created an intelligence industry, as well, that simply did not exist before and the CIA's own "little wars" have led to the assassination and removal of foreign leaders in several countries (most notably, Iran, as far as understanding modern issues there). There are some who believe that war should only be utilized as a last-ditch measure and only for defending the borders of the country. The prevailing view since World War II, however, has been that anything deemed to be in the "national interest" is a self-justification, even in a so-called "preemptive" manner, and even if we have no real clear sense of what a "national interest" means.

Finally, it bears reminding that the U. S. spends almost as much on its national defense as the rest of the world combined. That, combined with the fact that some 200,000 Americans are worth more than the rest of us, should be troubling to anyone. Military spending is 25% greater than industrial and agricultural production combined. In 2009, the base budget is $515 billion with almost $150 billion of supplemental and discretionary spending added. Factoring in weapons research, Veterans Affairs, and, significantly, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are funded through so-called "extra budgetary supplements" and which consist almost entirely of "borrowed" funds inflating our national debt, the entire defense-related budget mushrooms (oops!) to nearly $1 trillion. Let's not forget also that our national debt is over $10 trillion. This, given our current economic woes, makes the Reagan-era military spending by borrowing look insignificant in comparison, as that period also saw massive tax cuts and exploding military spending at the expense of a huge rise in our national debt. This is called "fiscal conservatism."

Having said this, I am all in favor of a strong military for the defense of our country and for some international presence to protect our citizens and assist allies when needed, but we have lost all sense of perspective and reason as we've created the military-industrial complex of which Eisenhower so eloquently and directly warned. Having, like almost everyone, had many veterans in my family and understanding the sacrifice military personnel make, I do take the time to make sure the American flag is hanging outside my house on Veterans' Day and remember their contributions at some point during the day. By the same token, we need to reevaluate, keeping in mind what Dwight Eisenhower warned about nearly a half-century ago, the role of the military in American life, because the day may well be coming soon when we are unable to financially continue the "military-industrial complex" and all that it entails. As if with many other areas (energy, Social Security, health care, education, pollution effects, climate, and on and on) of our lives, that reassessment will almost certainly mean a drastic restructuring over time of how we live.

Now, what does all this rambling have to do with Aerojet? That site and its history is a reminder of the broad sweep of history and the lessons that can be learned from it. The munitions testing facility set amidst the gentle rolling Chino Hills, seemingly a world away from residences (after all, who would've thought, when the prison at Chino was built, that there would someday be homes popping up all around it?) and "out of sight, out of mind" was a product of what can only be termed, once again, Cold War hysteria. The fact that the plant was closed in 1995 and underwent a decade and more of cleanup to reclaim the site for high-end residential housing is debatable in terms of whether there will be long-term, lasting effects environmentally and in terms of human health.Hopefully, though, people won't forget the meaning of Aerojet in the bigger picture, because we are still very much living in the "military-industrial complex," evolving as it is, and its consequences are always present, whether we choose to think about them or not.

For this Veterans' Day, that comment made by a visitor to this blog seemed a good time to give it some thought.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the follow up to my original comment. You've taken my simple comment about the scruples of land developers and brought it into the level of socio-economic theory. Of course that is what I was aiming for all along. ;) I am honoured to have been a catalyst for your Veterans' Day contemplation.

After my prior comment, and my sparked interest in the cold war history of the area found two other notable locations:

Brea Nike Missile Site:

And a rocket fuel test range that was run by Mcdonald Douglas near Featherly Regional Park.

Anyways thanks again, for that follow up.

Paul said...

Hello anonymous, one of my favorite professors from my undergraduate years in college, Janet Farrell Brodie, who is now chair of the history department at Claremont Graduate University has been working on a book, "Cultures of Secrecy in Cold War Los Angeles." I know she did a lot of research into defense production, missile sites, and the like. You might want to look for it when it is published. Thanks for checking back with the Chronicle!