Virgil: The Threat from China — America’s New ‘Sputnik Moment’

STR/AFP/GettyImages, AP Photo

Sputnik Moments, 60 Years Apart 

Is this our “Sputnik Moment”?  That is, the moment when Americans wake up and realize that they face a grave threat from a foreign power?   In 1957, the threat was from the Soviet Union, which had just launched its Sputnik 1 satellite, an event that seemed to portend an overall Russian leapfrogging of the U.S.

It was on October 4, 1957, that Americans were stunned to learn that the U.S.S.R. had beaten us into space.  And we wondered: If the Russkies can pull off that technological marvel, what else can they do?  Can America keep up?  Those were the questions that loomed over American politics for years.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA: Picture dated October 6, 1957 shows the frontpage of the Soviet newspaper Pravda after the launch of the world’s first man-made satellite, called Sputnik. It was an event which sparked the “space-race” and pushed the frontiers of the Cold War outside the Earth’s atmosphere. (AFP/Getty Images)

Fortunately, back then, America responded to the Soviet challenge.  Uncle Sam accelerated his commitment to U.S. technological development, and, as we all know, we ultimately won the space race.

That is, the U.S. won the space race, and the overall technology race, against Moscow.  And yet now we face a new and greater threat—from Beijing.  Yes, 60 years after Sputnik, we see that China, with quadruple our population, is on the move.  It has plenty of orbiting satellites, of course, as well as a whole class of satellite-killers that we might not be ready for.  To top it off, China’s plans to go to Mars, the next place in the space race, are well far along—possibly exceeding those of the U.S.

These strategic Chinese developments are finally getting the attention of the Washington Establishment.  Just the other day, two think-tankers at the D.C.-based Center for a New American  Security (CNAS), Daniel Kliman and Harry Krejsa, raised a warning in Politico, “Is China leaping past us?  With little notice in Washington, Beijing has quietly become an innovation superpower.  How should the U.S. respond?”

As the authors observed, China’s super-technology reaches far and wide:

This August, China successfully tested the world’s first quantum satellite communication—relying on the physics of quantum entanglement to send and receive provably secure messages.  While the United States faces a regulatory morass around the world-shaking potential of CRISPR gene-editing technologies, China last year announced seven human trials to treat cancer and other ailments.

And the list of Chinese technological achievements goes on.  Moreover, those tech gains are being converted into overall economic gains.  We might note that in just three decades, China has gone from having an economy 1/15th the size of the U.S. to an economy that will be larger than that of the U.S. as soon as next year, 2018.  And with that wealth comes power: it’s the Chinese who are laying down ambitious infrastructure all across Eurasia, further binding them to their export-receiving markets; it’s the Chinese who are re-colonizing Africa, with all its mineral and agricultural abundance.

For the Chinese leadership, all their bold plans are coming together.   In the words of authors Kliman and Krejsa, it’s a pattern Americans should recognize:

These “Sputnik Moments” extend across multiple industries, from communications technology to renewable energy.  Collectively, they pose a risk to America’s future economic dynamism, as well as its military superiority.

Indeed, it’s increasingly obvious that the Chinese leadership is at least thinking about new military confrontation, as well as continued economic competition.

The Chinese flag is raised during a military parade at the Zhurihe training base in China’s northern Inner Mongolia region on July 30, 2017. China held a parade of its armed forces on July 30 to mark the 90th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in a display of military might. (Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Getting Real About China

To be sure, Americans might be forgiven if they don’t yet perceive China as a threat, because, after all, it wasn’t that long ago that President Bill Clinton described China as a “constructive strategic partner”–as he vastly expanded U.S.-China trade.

More recently, Americans were told by leading Republicans that the big crisis was the lack of democracy in the Middle East, and so we frittered away thousands of lives, and trillions of dollars, on vainglorious efforts to democratize benighted countries.

At the same time, leading Democrats were seduced, as well, by the siren song of Middle East mirages, even as they go chasing after yet another illusion, the idea that America can somehow stop “climate change”—even if the Chinese, among other big countriesare obviously not interested.

However, Breitbart News readers are plenty aware of the risk from China; just last month, Breitbart bannered an opinion piece from Peter Navarro, the White House trade czar, calling for tougher action on China trade: “Time to End the ‘Devil’s Bargain’ With China.”

And Breitbart’s executive chairman, Stephen K. Bannon, has been a veritable honey badger on the subject of China.  The former White House senior strategist has directly linked the North Korean nuclear crisis to the doings of the “Middle Kingdom”; as Bannon put it recently, “This is 100 percent about China.”  That is, if the Pyongyang regime’s masters in Beijing truly wanted Kim Jong Un’s atomic antics to stop, they would indeed stop.  But since China, even now, seems quietly supportive of the North Koreans, the provocations continue.  Indeed, there’s no real evidence that the Chinese would object if the No Kos nuked an American city.

Moreover, Bannon has also said that if present trends continue, with or without the help of the North Koreans, China will be the hegemonic power in the world in as little as 25 years.  Indeed, he has even compared the situation in China today to that of Germany in 1930; that is, China could potentially become as dangerous to the world as Germany was after Hitler took power in 1933.

So yes, we Americans face a daunting prospect.  Okay, so what to do? The CNAS authors have their answer:

The United States should consider establishing a National Economic Competition Center, modeled after the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC).

The NCTC, we might note, was formed after 9/11 to coordinate counter-terror efforts across the nation.

In that same integrative spirit, the authors suggest forming a National Economic Competition Center (NECC) to do the same for economic and cyber security.  It would, the authors tell us, convene “key players from relevant agencies,” the goal being to “pool information from across the government, and leverage big data to track Chinese efforts to acquire U.S. technology.”

So is this NECC a good idea?  Do we really need another “alphabet soup” agency?  After all, we already have an NSC, the National Security Council, and an NEC, the National Economic Council—not to mention a hundred other departments and entities that could claim at least some piece of this economic/security turf.

Still, for now, our verdict on a possible NECC should be a firm maybe.  Maybe, that is, because we simply don’t yet know what we will need to surmount this new Sputnik Moment. Why?  Because by itself, a new creation can’t do much. What matters most is the spirit—and the knowhow, and the productive capacity—of the American nation.

If the people of this country take seriously the challenge of Sputnik Moment 2.0, then we’ll be fine, and the logic of an NECC—or not—will resolve itself.

In the meantime, as those who do take the China threat seriously think about mobilizing the country, we might do well to learn from what’s worked in the past.

We’ve Been Down This Road Before—and Won

For example, in the late 30s, America was mostly asleep—not paying attention to the gathering storm in both Europe and Asia.  Indeed, during those years, Congress passed no fewer than four Neutrality Acts; the theory on Capitol Hill seemed to be that we could simply ignore the danger posed by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.  And yet the Japanese were stealthily preparing to attack the U.S., which, of course, they did, at Pearl Harbor in 1941.  In fact, Hitler, too, fully intended to make war on America.  So there was no way out of a future world war.

Fortunately, we had a president back then, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who could see, early on, the looming threat from the Axis countries.  In his Annual Message to Congress on January 4, 1939—nine months before the German attack on Poland, which triggered World War Two in Europe—the 32nd president said:

All about us rage undeclared wars—military and economic.  All about us grow more deadly armaments—military and economic.  All about us are threats of new aggression military and economic.

And yet, Roosevelt continued, the U.S. would staunchly defend its core values, of which he emphasized three: religion, democracy, and good-faith international diplomacy.  We can note that when he said “defend,” he meant, if necessary, fight:

There comes a time in the affairs of men when they must prepare to defend, not their homes alone, but the tenets of faith and humanity on which their churches, their governments and their very civilization are founded. The defense of religion, of democracy and of good faith among nations is all the same fight.  To save one we must now make up our minds to save all.

Indeed, even before Pearl Harbor, FDR had outlined his vision of America as the “arsenal of democracy.”  The idea was that the U.S. would produce the weapons needed by the other countries fighting the Axis powers—including, interestingly enough, China.

As we all know, in the modern age, a fighting spirit means little without the advanced tools needed for fighting.  To fully mobilize our domestic war-production capacity, FDR created a slew of entities, with acronyms such as OEM and OPMSPAB and WPB.  That soup of letters might have been confusing at the time, but it all worked in the end; the U.S. produced more than 60,000 tanks, more than 300,000 airplanes, and some 41 billion rounds of ammunition.  And to move all that materiel around the world, we built 2710 Liberty cargo ships.

As Roosevelt said in his 1942 State of the Union address, less than a month into the war:

It will not be sufficient for us and the other United Nations to produce a slightly superior supply of munitions to that of Germany, Japan, Italy, and the stolen industries in the countries which they have overrun.

The superiority of the United Nations in munitions and ships must be overwhelming—so overwhelming that the Axis Nations can never hope to catch up with it.  And so, in order to attain this overwhelming superiority the United States must build planes and tanks and guns and ships to the utmost limit of our national capacity. We have the ability and capacity to produce arms not only for our own forces, but also for the armies, navies, and air forces fighting on our side.

(That production surge culminated, of course, in the detonation of two atomic bombs over Japan in 1945—you could say that was a pre-Sputnik Moment for the Japanese back then, as well as for any other foe, or potential foe.)

We might also note that something else happened during World War Two; the situation on the American homefront improved, big-time.  As FDR said during the fighting, he had retired “Dr. New Deal” and replaced him with “Dr. Win the War.”  That is, the anti-business feeling of the 30s was displaced by the new realization that all sectors of society—including business and its antagonist, labor—now had to cooperate to achieve victory.

And it was that cohesive “all-in” spirit that President Trump recalled when he spoke earlier this year at the former Willow Run war-production plant in Michigan; Virgil wrote about the meaning of that historic moment herehere, and here.

The B-24 Liberator assembly line, 1943, at Ford’s Willow Run Plant, the beating heart of the “Arsenal of Democracy.” (Source: The Henry Ford/Flickr)

Interestingly, the mass-mobilization of World War Two also stimulated mass-consumption at home.  A quick look at the statistics tells the tale: During the five years prior to the war, 1936 to 1940, the GDP of the nation grew by 21 percent.  And yet during the war years, 1941 to 1945, that GDP growth nearly quadrupled, up 76 percent.

To be sure, much of that expansion was due to war spending, although it must be noted that zooming war spending also meant zooming factory construction here at home.  And so that’s why personal consumption expenditures—money spent on the home front—rose by a half during the war years.

A real-time look at the impact of this expansion can be found in the 1942 Hollywood movie, Wings for the Eagle, starring Ann Sheridan and Dennis Morgan as workers at the Lockheed aviation plant in Burbank, Calif., which built more than 19,000 combat airplanes during the war.  As a happy byproduct of all this heroic economic activity, the Lockheed workers—represented by a half-dozen labor unions—lived a pretty good life.

Of course, a nation should never wish to base its economy on war spending, no matter how lucrative.  And that’s why it’s heartening to understand that the economy continued to surge after the war, and for the rest of the 20th century.

Why did this happen? In part because the industries turbocharged by war spending—including electronics, aviation, chemistry, and nuclear power—were able to convert, after 1945, to mostly peaceful purposes.  For instance, two oil pipelines built in record time by Uncle Sam in 1942-3—the Big Inch and Little Inch, connecting Texas to the East Coast—are still in operation to this day.

Indeed, it’s been estimated that Uncle Sam borrowed money at negative interest rates to build (adjusted for inflation) a trillion dollars’ worth of defense plants during the war years.  And then, after the war, the government sold them off, for about a dime on the dollar.   So right there, that’s a pretty big shot in the arm for the post-war economy.

Another reason for the continued post-war expansion was the G.I. Bill, one of the wisest policies ever put forth in America.  It helped nearly eight million WW2 vets learn valuable new skills, further expanding the skilled-labor pool created by the domestic war-mobilization.

So we can see: While there’s plenty to be said for the “invisible hand” of the free market, there’s a lot to be said for the visible hand of direct federal investment, coupled with patriotic inspiration.  As every Breitbart reader knows, nationalism is, indeed, a powerful force.

Economic Nationalism, Then and Now

And the same drive, for what might be called an Economic Nationalist agenda, has worked, as well, more recently.

Not surprisingly, one of FDR’s top generals in World War Two, Dwight Eisenhower, absorbed all these lessons.  Ike knew that the valor of the American solders and airmen under his command in the European Theater of Operations was greatly strengthened by the sophisticated typhoon of lead and steel that they were able to unleash on the Wehrmacht.

And these lessons were still with Eisenhower when he served as our 34th president, from 1953 to 1961.  It was Economic Nationalist thinking, for instance, that animated Ike’s decision to launch the Interstate highway system in 1956.

So the following year, when the first “Sputnik Moment” hit, Ike was ready to mobilize.  And so was his successor in the White House, another World War Two vet, John F. Kennedy.  In the 50s and into the 60s, the command-focus that Ike and JFK put on space science, and technology in general, ultimately enabled the U.S. to triumph in that competition with the U.S.S.R.; the Russians might have gotten to space first, but we got to the Moon—and they didn’t.  And in the meantime, we got spinoffs, from Tang to the Internet.

So today, in 2017, we Americans confront our new Sputnik Moment.  The CNAS think-tank authors, Kliman and Krejsa, have the right idea:

Recalling that U.S.-Soviet technological rivalry contributed to the modern age through space exploration, materials science, and advanced computing, the United States should boldly embrace economic competition with China.  Now is the time to organize to win.

Yes, the competition—hopefully not an armed confrontation, although we can never be sure—with China is our new “rendezvous with destiny.”  That famous phrase, we might recall, originated with Franklin D. Roosevelt, but was well used, too, more recently, by one of FDR’s greatest fans, Ronald Reagan.  On either man’s lips, the meaning was clear: We all have to be ready to do our duty, at home, or, God forbid, in a war zone. 

To be sure, there’s no iron-clad guarantee that we Americans will rise to this new rendezvous with destiny.  After all, there comes a time when every great nation falters, even fails.

Yet it doesn’t have to be this time, nor does it have to be any time soon.

And in the meantime, this much we can be sure of: As they look down upon us from their immortal pantheon in the sky, the great leaders of our past—including FDR, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Reagan, joined by the millions of heroes of the Greatest Generation, warriors and workers alike—are pulling for us to succeed.

And that’s a powerful precedent, as well as some a darn powerful inspiration.


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.